First conceived by the manga artist Monkey Punch (aka Katō Kazuhiko) in 1967, the impish and uncatchable gentleman thief Lupin the Third has since been the subject of six animated television series, 13 features (including the masterpiece “Castle of Cagliostro,” directed by Hayao Miyazaki), and nearly three dozen OVAs and specials, to say nothing of the various albums, video games, and fully produced musicals — plural! — that have been made about the character along the way. And while that 53-year-stretch has seen our slippery hero change styles a handful of times (the difference between how he’s drawn in the Adult Swim-approved “Lupin the Third Part II” and 2012’s “The Woman Called Fujiko Mine” is akin to the difference between Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig), Lupin hasn’t really aged a day.
Follow any character around the same idyllic and playful post-war environments for half a century and they’ll start to feel timeless, but even Lupin’s rare excursions into more recent history have been defined by an intrinsic “Lupin-ness” that makes it feel as if Monkey Punch’s magnum opus could be with us forever (Katō died in 2019). Whatever he looks like, wherever he goes, and whenever he gets there, Lupin will always be stealing priceless treasure from people who don’t deserve it. He’ll always be hounded by the oafish, paternal Interpol agent Inspector Zenigata. He’ll always be pining after the buxom lady thief Fujiko Mine, and accompanied on his adventures by James Coburn-inspired marksman Jigen Daisuke and sword-carrying modern samurai Ishikawa Goemon XIII. Some things never change.
Which is all to say that the franchise’s foray into the slick and seductive world of 3DCG animation (à la Pixar, et al.) has always been inevitable and that the results are both jarringly different and comfortably familiar in equal measure. Purists and non-Japanese audiences who prize anime for its enduringly “hand-drawn” appeal might be put off by the acrylic character designs and generic environments of Yamazaki Takashi’s “Lupin III: The First,” but it’s not as if this high-profile new addition to the Lupin saga is pissing on Katō’s grave; he dreamed of seeing a CG Lupin before he died, and hoped that rendering his signature character in a more universal style might draw new attention to Japan and its stories.
The fun but forgettable movie that has now resulted from that dream is a fine testament to the idea that some fictional characters truly have a soul of their own — one that never loses its shape no matter how far you stretch it. It’s an idea baked into the basic premise of this “Indiana Jones”-inspired film about the power of bloodlines, the strength they can lend us, and also the supremacist thinking they’re often used to justify. But “Lupin III: The First” is also a self-defeating reminder that some technology can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and has a nasty habit of destroying history in the name of bringing about a new age.
The story here is the stuff of vintage Lupin, and Yamazaki’s script throws in a few bold swerves that should keep fans on their toes and raise a lot of eyebrows along the way. The action begins in France during World War II, as a professor named Bresson is murdered by a Nazi goon squad from the Ahnenerbe; we’re already in more serious and historical territory than Lupin has visited before. The Nazis are after Bresson’s diary, which supposedly contains the secret to an infinite energy source.
When the diary resurfaces in Paris during the ’60s, Lupin isn’t the only one who tries to steal it (though, in typical Lupin fashion, he is the only one to write the authorities a letter stating his intentions). Fujiko Mine is after the book too, of course, and so is an oddly guileless newcomer named Laetitia (voiced by Hirose Suzu), who seems much sweeter than her adoptive grandfather Professor Lambert and the Ahnenerbe fugitives who’ve enlisted her to swipe the treasure. And so another screwball misadventure is afoot, as Lupin’s gang and some Hitler fetishists engage in a high-flying race to crack the secrets of Bresson’s diary while Inspector Zenigata tries to keep up with them both.
The zaniness of the action and the hyper-recognizable personalities that power it along keep things on brand even when your brain isn’t sure what to make of the film’s new plastic sheen (it helps that much of the cast is played by the same actors who’ve been voicing these characters for decades, though I can’t speak to the quality or effect of the English dub). Lupin might look like an acrylic action figure being posed against a series of uninspired photorealistic environments, but the lanky thief still moves like a cross between Jackie Chan and Philip Marlowe with a little Jerry Lewis thrown in for good measure; whether squaring off with Laetitia on the rooftops of Paris or literally swimming through the air with a comic breaststroke as he plummets from a plane without a parachute, there’s no mistaking Lupin for anyone else (unless he’s wearing their face as a mask).
And while Yamazaki doesn’t leave Goemon, Daisuke, or Fujiko Mine with all that much to do, he drills into the series’ dysfunctional family vibe in a way that allows the film to indicate a past that it doesn’t bother to flesh out, as if leaving behind clues to any newcomers who might be intrigued enough to go exploring. Laetitia is also a charming addition to the crew. A gifted archeologist who abhors the thought of stealing history for oneself, Laetitia can’t the predicament that explodes around her, and the movie has some fun with the idea of a brilliant character who nevertheless lacks the right mind for this sort of business. “Thieving isn’t something you do half-heartedly,” Lupin chides between a series of daring escapes and death-defying chase sequences that underline his point (the animation never looks better than during the delightful and absurd action setpieces, though Yamazaki’s computer-generated mayhem still feels like it’s drafting off of the same manic glee that Miyazaki was able to create by hand).
As sorely as I miss the romantic ambiance of the series’ previous incarnations — its watercolor Monte Carlo, its sun-kissed take on Padar, its Fellini-adjacent Italy — there’s an intriguing upside to the 21st century aesthetic at work in “Lupin III: The First,” and the kind of story that it allows Yamazaki to tell. The novel energy source described in Bresson’s diary is called “The Eclipse,” and the CG animation used to illustrate it allows this new and unstable technology to, well, look like new and unstable technology. Although “new” might be the wrong word to describe The Eclipse, which might (in true “Indiana Jones” tradition) have origins that stretch long before World War II.
The flimsy specifics of The Eclipse are both easy to spoil and impossible to explain, but it’s safe to assume that the Nazis don’t want to do anything good with it, and the film renders the destructive power of this Oppenheimer-like creation with some visceral digital flair. Sure, “Akira” proved that the apocalypse could be drawn on paper, but the graphics used here endow the Eclipse with an alien and untamable energy that make it a compelling MacGuffin, even if the “Last Crusade”-like second act gets bogged down in the effort of creating a suitably hi-tech vault in which to hide it. In fact, “Lupin III: The First” becomes so ensorcelled by its own technology that everything else falls by the wayside, leaving the potentially spectacular third act without a legitimate payoff; the fact that Lupin’s story will never end doesn’t excuse his adventures from a decent climax.
At its best, “Lupin III: The First” is a tribute to the enduring appeal of Monkey Punch’s greatest achievement, and a reminder that it can survive any kind of upheaval even if his story remains rooted in the mid 20th century. But while Lupin will never get old, this Botox-injected take on the character can make it feel like he’s trying a bit too hard to stay young. It would be wonderful if Yamazaki’s film helped bring Lupin to the rest of the world, but here’s hoping that any further CG adventures do more to bring the rest of the world to Lupin.
“Lupin III: The First” will screen in theaters as a Fathom Event on Wednesday, October 21. GKIDS and Shout! Factory will release it for download on December 15.