When Japanese VFX-wizard-turned-director Takashi Yamazaki (“Dragon Quest: Your Story”) tackled “Lupin III: The First” (GKids), the first CG movie in the Monkey Punch Anime franchise, he turned for inspiration to the great Hayao Miyazaki. After all, Miyazaki cut his feature teeth on the franchise’s “The Castle of Cagliostro” (1979), which was Yamazaki’s ’80s introduction to Miyazaki. And, for good measure, Miyazaki continued to make his mark on master thief Lupin by directing two influential TV episodes the following year: “Wings of Death: Albatross” and “Farewell My Beloved Lupin.”
The Oscar-winning Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) humanized the stylish Lupin in “Cagliostro” by making him a gallant hero as well, rescuing a princess in distress on the way to seizing his treasure. Fittingly, Yamazaki borrowed the theme for “Lupin III: The First” by having Lupin rescue a brilliant archaeologist, Laetitia, in search of a mysterious supernatural artifact that connects both of their ancestries. “At the core, my movie is about saving a girl to be free and that is very much the same as ‘Caliostro,'” Yamazaki said via a translator.
But, in addressing the continuing appeal of Lupin, Yamazaki said: “He’s a thief, he’s a bad guy, but he’s awesome.” And Yamazaki was intent on fulfilling Monkey Punch’s dream of making a CG “Lupin” movie set in Paris in the late ’60s with all the usual tropes (including acrobatic leaps across rooftops and escaping from piles of police). Here the director weaves a globe-trotting spy adventure involving a dark cabal of former Nazis bent on resurrecting the Third Reich by seizing the MacGuffin: a power generator left behind by a lost Mexican civilization called The Eclipse that can destroy the world.
Meanwhile, Miyazaki’s Fiat 500 car chase from “Cagliostro” and airplane dogfight from “Albatross” were nostalgically reworked featuring Lupin’s partners in crime: marksman Daisuke Jigen and swordsman Goemon Ishikawa XIII. “For the action, I spent a lot of time doing the prep work before drawing,” Yamazaki said. “And then I would have a storyboard person put it in a reel, and check it, and fix it. The car chase was little bit more Hollywood-style, but I had to put it in because it’s always part of the fun. Goemon would cut something and it’ll be over, or Jigen would just use his spectacular gun technique and then it’ll solve the problem.”
To meet the challenge of translating the cartoonish hand-drawn animation into more realistic CG, Marza Animation Planet’s two dedicated 3D modelers focused especially on Lupin’s iconic look and his most expressive poses, and movements, with special attention paid to such details as sideburns and jawlines. And, of course, the slick texture of Lupin’s red leather jacket could only be achieved in CG.
“It’s really about the rigging, the facial expressions,” said Yamazaki, “but warping his facial expressions to the point where they kept the Lupin elements. You had to make something in 3D, which doesn’t exist in real life, but as 2D. That’s what the animators achieved.”
While the director approached it as making a live-action movie, there was one exception: a parkour-like sequence, in which Lupin dodges laser blasts like an obstacle course to intercept The Eclipse. “This was the only scene reserved for CG where I could focus on superhuman-like physical abilities,” added Yamazaki. “So I used the camera freely and went with it.”
Other influences included James Bond and Indiana Jones for breakneck action and archaeological intrigue. “I like how Bond gets to go all over the world and have action everywhere,” Yamazaki said. “So that was incorporated. But I think the bigger influence was Indiana Jones, which [had a huge impact] on me. There’s no way in Japan you can make action like that, so I took the opportunity to make the story similar to an Indiana Jones. I loved growing up on ’80s Hollywood. When I saw J.J. Abrams’ ‘Super 8, I was surprised how he put his love of movies into a movie. And so I was inspired to do something like that.”
“Lupin III: The First” was released theatrically by GKids in October and will be available on digital download December 15 and as a SteelBook edition of the Blu-ray combo on January 12, 2021 from GKids and Shout! Factory.