I sit here wondering, "What more can be said about Lupin in a newsletter article?" I'll bet that the creators of the Lupin anime have very similar feelings each year as they plan the next Lupin feature. Since French author Maurice LeBlanc created the "Gentleman Thief" Arsene Lupin character in the early 1900's (anyone up for Arsene Lupin silent films?) and manga artist Monkey Punch (who lists Groo/Mad Magazine's Sergio Aragones as a big influence) debuted his Lupin III character in 1967, there have been 3 Lupin III manga series, 3 television series, many theatrical releases, and even more TV movies. In Japan, a new Lupin TV movie comes out every summer. If the Lupin creators can come up with something new each year, surely I can come up with something new to say in a mere article.
So what is it that distinguishes one Lupin movie from the ones that came before it? Sure, there are more special effects, and the movies have a more modern setting than the ones made in the 70's, but the characters haven't really changed much, not recently at least. The public has a good idea of what to expect from Lupin, Jigen, Goemon, Fujiko, Zenigata, and even the bad guys who are (as usual) trying to take over the world in one way or another. What, therefore, makes one Lupin movie better than another, if the characters and general plots are about the same? One word: Style.
Let's talk about style. Lupin is about style -- not coherent plot, not deep thoughts, not beautiful characters, although Miyazaki did manage to sneak a few beautiful landscapes and a Nausicaš look-alike into his incarnation of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. When I watch Lupin, I temporarily forget about realism; I watch Lupin to see how stylishly he pulls off his heists, or how he manages to keep his sense of humor despite whatever predicament or strange setting he's in. I watch to see how Jigen is introduced. I watch how he smokes, fingers his revolver, how he walks. I watch to see how Goemon, normally so calm, ends up with this rowdy cast of characters. I watch to see how Fujiko manages to get herself involved even when she's not necessarily welcome. What I really love, however, is to see Zenigata attempt to arrest Lupin. Quite often, this is portrayed in the movie's opening scene, and how well the initial Zenigata/Lupin chase sequence is executed is often a good indication of how good the rest of the movie will be.
If it's the characters who are so important in giving the anime style points, perhaps we should spend a little time examining who the characters are.
Lupin III, the master thief, is the grandson of the original Arsene Lupin, the "Gentleman Thief." Possessing great dexterity, good fighting skills, and lots of luck (yes, it's one of his skills), Lupin seems almost superhuman in his criminal exploits. On the other hand, he has a hard time saying "no" to beautiful women.
Ishikawa Goemon, the kensai (literally "sword-saint") and Lupin's ally, is quite possibly the descendant of the famous real-life ninja of the same name. The original Goemon caused his enemies so much trouble, they finally executed him by boiling him in oil.
Zenigata is a policeman of honor and tradition in a world full of corruption. Zenigata's main motivation for living is his desire to apprehend Lupin. He is either descended from or based on Heiji Zenigata, the famous crime-fighting character who used throwing coins as his weapon.
Jigen Daisuke, Lupin's right-hand man, bodyguard, and partner in crime, is a gifted marksman. He doesn't seem to have any famous ancestors, but that adds to his mysteriousness and general coolness. According to rumor, he's in Japan to escape from the American mob.
I consider The Legend of Twilight Gemini (1996) one of the better Lupin features, but your mileage may vary. One's appreciation of Lupin movies really depends on which other ones you've seen. If this is your first Lupin movie, I hope that you have fun and will want to indulge in more of this fantastic and long-lasting anime tradition.
[12/2/04 Update: For further articles by Lawrence Eng, see his anime page.]