TheGiantClaw’s review published on Letterboxd:
Lupin III is maybe the only piece of media I've ever come across where you've either never heard of it, or you absolutely love it. No in-between. In America, Lupin III sadly never gained a wider audience as it did in, say, Italy, but it still has one of the strongest fanbases I've seen despite the franchise's relative obscurity in the states. And when I say relative obscurity, I mean most anime fans who weren't present when the second series first aired on Toonami way back in 2003 won't have any idea what it is. In the last two decades, Lupin has been overshadowed by more digestible and easily merchandised shows.
But before I dissect the series, who is Lupin III and why should you care? That's a long story. And seeing as I'm a die-hard fan who never stops gushing about this gem, I'm more than happy to tell you. Lupin III was first published in 1967 and was developed by Kazuhiko Katō, who went under the pen name Monkey Punch. The story followed the adventures of the grandson of Arsène Lupin, a master thief who appeared as the title character in a series of extremely popular French novels in the early 20th century. Lupin III follows in the footsteps of his grandfather by outsmarting even the most cunning of assassins and special agents all-the-while stealing priceless valuables and having a little fun along the way. And as the manga went on many players were introduced who became essential elements to the series. The man who's been a shadow to Lupin since chapter one is Inspector Zenigata of Interpol. He's the leading investigator of all of Lupin's heists and is easily Lupin's greatest adversary. Over time, the two would evolve into equally matched rivals who respect each other's craft, and their neverending chase is the backbone of the series. Then there is Daisuke Jigen, Lupin's righthand man and an expert gunman. Jigen is defined by his formal dress, a wide-brimmed hat, a habit for chain-smoking, and his tough-guy mentality. Goemon Ishikawa XIII, a skilled samurai with a quiet, determined demeanor and the ability to slice through any object, stands out because of his ancient Japanese garb and calm manner. He was actually not one of the original cast (having only been introduced towards the end of volume 3), but his abilities as a master swordsman and level-headed manner add an essential element to the main cast, and as such he's never been excluded from any of their adventures. And finally, there's the sexy femme fatale Fujiko Mine. Originally, Fujiko was a name given to many women throughout the manga before being tacked to one woman who evolved from a Bond girl-type to an expert sleuth in her own right who is able to hold her own against Lupin. The dynamic between Lupin and Fujiko is one of the strongest aspects of the story. Lupin loves Fujiko because of her beauty and because she's the only thief he views as his equal. And Fujiko uses Lupin's lust for her as a tool for her own gain. Neither ever ends up settling down with the other, and never will for as long as the series has steam. Because one of the killers of almost any series is the death of the sexual tension. Once two characters viewers have been dying to see together finally tie the knot interest in the show plummets. And with Fujiko and Lupin, they have no need to settle down because they never age and therefore will always be at the top of their game; constantly trying to outsmart each other.
Now for what I believe are the two defining factors in the lack of success of Lupin in the west. Starting with scarcity. In the US, the original 14 volume manga and its 21 volume follow-up were translated and distributed by Tokyopop starting in 2002. Sadly, the Tokyopop releases are now long out of print and command high prices on eBay. And to add insult to injury, you can't read the full series on pirated websites. To my knowledge, only the first two volumes have been scanned and released online for free. So if you want to read the full series, you have to fork over large sums of money to eBay sellers. The anime also suffered the sad fate of not having proper DVD releases till only the last decade. Series one, which first aired in 1971, didn't have a release on disc until 2014. And series two, which aired in 1977, didn't get an official DVD release until 2017, and even then the only way to purchase it is by forking over 50-65 dollars apiece for the four volumes (thankfully if you're curious, all five series are available on VRV for free). The movies suffered the same fate as both the manga and the anime. Some of the Lupin movies got physical media releases, normally through Funimation, during the early 2000's. But I'm sure to no one's surprise those editions are now out of circulation and some go for high prices online. But thankfully Discotek now owns the rights to release all Lupin related adaptations and so far have been doing a damn good job. They're still cranking out more films onto Blu Ray and DVD, with Missed by a Dollar set to be released on May 30th.
And so with Lupin not being a very profitable franchise in America because of lack of exposure the amount of easily obtainable merchandise is almost non-existent. You can't walk into a Hot Topic or Walmart and find Lupin licensed t-shirts, figures, hats, hell there isn't even a Lupin Funko POP. Like, at all. This is the toy line that released a Keith Haring POP and two POPs based on the obscure Disney flick The Black Hole. And without that crucial merchandise market here in the west, more people aren't going to be exposed to the series as easily unless you're already a hardcore anime fan or you know someone who is.
Then there's the point about Lupin not being as appealing to new viewers. One of the common complaints you'll hear from people about jumping into anime (this was even an issue I had) is the copious amounts of content and not knowing where to start. And with Lupin, this is indeed a challenging feat judging by the volume of media out there. In total, the franchise has produced 291 episodes spread across six series spanning nearly five decades. Along with that, there's the original manga, which had two series, totaling 35 volumes, and over 40 feature-length films and specials. Lupin is a massive franchise that has managed to chug along at a steady pace for going on fifty-four years now. And to view that as an outsider it seems like a daunting task. Do you start with the hard to find manga? The tens of movies? The first 26 episode series?
Personally, I think you can start anywhere. My introduction to Lupin was as a child when I got my first taste of Toonami. My exposure to anime was through shows like Trigun, Dragon Ball Z, FLCL, and Lupin. Then years later as a young Hayao Miyazaki fan I watched his directorial debut, The Castle of Cagliostro, a masterpiece and a crowning achievement of both Miyazaki's run, and the Lupin library. Since then, I've watched many of the films out of order, and last month I finished my first complete series, part four. And the reason I'm able to do this is because you don't need any prior knowledge of Lupin when going into any of the movies or shows. The moment you watch your first piece of Lupin you will quickly understand who these characters are and their relation to each other. These characters don't have backstories and whatever happened to them in a previous story is either quickly dropped and forgotten about or is immediately recapped for those who missed it. And that's because that's the way the manga is. There are some continuations of a previous storyline, but for the most part Monkey Punch wrote quick, simple episodic adventures meant to be wrapped up in around twenty pages.
And that's really the beauty of Lupin and what I admire so much about this franchise. These characters are so flexible that you can literally drop them in any time period and give them any goal and nothing changes. Lupin III is what I would describe as that perfect culmination of everything I find entertaining. From the manga to the shows and movies, this is the type of perfection a person only finds once in a lifetime. It's sexy, funny, adventurous, wild, imaginative, and features a host of some of my favorite anime characters, each with their own defined personality traits and styles, and each character perfectly complements the other and their goals and shortcomings culminate to further the enjoyable and unique adventures that have been told for decades now and never seem to get old. And keep in mind, Monkey Punch stopped writing new Lupin stories in the 80's. Sure, he served as a consultant on future adaptations, and he had a hand in writing the most recent live-action film, but for the most part, all new Lupin works made after the second manga series ended weren't written by the original author and yet still managed to retain what made the manga work while also modernizing it and editing out some of the less politically correct aspects of the original stories to better bring in new viewers. I can't think of many that could achieve such a difficult task.
And I can say with exuberance that Lupin III: The First, the first ever CGI Lupin film, lives up to the legacy of the character. It's all of the zanny, wild fun I expect from this series with excitement and laughs galore and a smooth transition to 3D models that doesn't lose any of the charm or iconic style of the characters. But of the Lupin movies I've seen, it manages to stick out by fully utilizing the technology used to animate it and by upping the ante of the story.
I don't want to give anything away because the film is full of surprises, but what I do want to comment on is how again no matter the situation, no matter how implausible the ideas are, this is still Lupin. And no matter where the story goes everyone ends up right back where they started. And that's not a bad thing at all. There's never any growth or progression with any of these characters, but that's because these aren't the types of characters that need backstories or character development. They were created to be moldable around any story. Like James Bond, or Indiana Jones. And I think this Lupin film expresses that fact best. It pushes the limit and goes as far as it can go while still maintaining the essense of what has made its predessesors successful. And that's the beauty of Lupin III: The First and the Lupin franchise in general.