The Long and Winding Road of Lupin III

December 27, 2020
Just who is this gentleman master thief?

While print manga and its animated counterpart anime, are quintessentially Japanese in aesthetics and design, the medium has long held a fascination with indulging European settings and characters. This odd sub-genre often presents as dark dystopian tales such as the wildly popular Attack on Titan set in a fictional medieval village, or whimsical fantasy adventures such as Howl’s Moving Castle and The Sky Crawlers from industry heavy weights Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii respectively. But arguably one the best known, and beloved European set Japanese properties would have to be the iconic Lupin III.

Embracing a mix of roughish charm, high adventure and comedic antics, the manga first appeared in 1965, penned by Kazuhiko Katō, better known under the pseudonym Monkey Punch. Based on the grandson of Arsène Lupin, the fictional protagonist of French author Maurice LeBlanc, who, as a gentleman thief and master criminal, was often referenced as the antithesis of England’s law-abiding Sherlock Holmes. And while Katō, aka Monkey Punch, borrowed heavily from LeBlanc’s template, his affable Lupin III undoubtedly carved his own unique perspective thanks to some seriously risqué illustrated depictions of sex and violence that would have the most refined French scoundrel blushing.

However, with a series of adventures spanning today’s European Union, combined with clever heists, double-crosses, witty dialogues and anti-establishment undertones, the series quickly gentrified into a more PC property, becoming a hit not only in its native Japan, but also abroad as Lupin III jumped from the page to the small screen to the silver screen and back again numerous times over the past fifty years.

When you break down the success Lupin III, you discover a staggering amount of content the franchise has generated since its humble serialization in Weekly Manga Action magazine in August of 1967. The list includes two animated pilots, six animated television series; eleven theatrically released animated films (including the Castle of Cagliostro by Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki), two live-action films, five AVO or direct-to-video works, twenty-seven animated specials, two musicals, a Detective Conan cross-over manga and TV Special, as well as numerous video game adaptations and CD releases. And now, the first CG animated film, a visual treat comparable to Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin.

It’s no real surprise that Lupin III has found universal appeal, as the titular title character isn’t the only cast member to borrow from pre-existing pop-culture inspirations. As an interesting side note, during the sixties Japan rarely bothered itself with compliance of copyright laws, hence the flagrant use of Arsène Lupin’s namesake. And while some of Lupin III’s associates didn’t appropriate the names of their influencers in such an obvious manner, Katō has often been on record as acknowledging James Bond as a strong influence for Lupin’s amorous prowess and the Bond Girl phenomenon as the origin for co-conspirator and love interest Fujiko Mine. Similarly, Lupin III’s right-hand man Daisuke Jigen was based on James Coburn’s performance as Brit from 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. And taking the pop-culture high jacking even further, Monkey Punch has compared the relationship between Lupin and his nemesis Inspector Zenigata as a “Human” Tom & Jerry while Lupin and Fujiko are his ode to D’Artagnan & Milady de Winter of The Three Musketeers.

Fujiko Mine, Inspector Zenigata, Lupin III, Daisuke Jigen and Goemon Ishikawa XIII in Lupin the Third: The First

But besides the oddly familiar traits imbued in his characters, perhaps Monkey Punch’s wisest choice was embracing Lupin III’s heritage, taking readers and viewers alike on rambunctious adventures across the romantic vistas of Europe, from The Italian Adventure TV series, to 2018’s Lupin III: Part V series which pays homage to LeBlanc, and his original leading man in their native France; depicting rich historical locales and bustling city-scapes that embrace both intrigue and romance, danger and mystery of the likes usually reserved for splashy 1970s cinema.

And now, with the upcoming Australian release of Lupin III: The First, the debut CG feature in the long running franchise, headlined by acclaimed voice actors Tony Oliver and Michelle Ruff for the English language dub, audiences of all ages will be able to once again indulge in a grand high-stakes adventure that would put the likes of Indiana Jones and Ethan Hunt to shame.

Lupin the Third: The First is in cinemas January 14, 2020


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