Lupin the Third is one of the longest running franchises in anime and manga. With multiple TV series, a handful of movies, and a long line of TV specials, it’s something of an institution in its homeland. Aside from Castle of Cagliostro, Secret of Mamo, and a random assortment of specials, sadly, UK fans have barely seen any of it. It’s fairly surprising, then, that 2012’s TV series the Woman Called Fujiko Mine has made it to the UK market this quickly.
As an introduction to the franchise it’s a bit of a strange place to start, considering that it’s unlike the rest of the series in many ways. .While most of the canon focuses on Arsene Lupin III, gentlemen thief and grandson to the infamous original thief of (almost) the same name, the latest series does not. Somewhere between prequel and reboot, it instead concentrates on Fujiko Mine, Lupin’s shapely cohort and sometime love-interest.
Fujiko has always been an iconic character, but her portrayals over the years have rarely been deeper than your average Bond girl. So it’s refreshing to see her character explored, even if it is in a heavily revised version.
Although Lupin himself is a big presence throughout the series, this is very much Fujiko’s story and the result is a show that is quite different in feel. Much darker and grittier than most Lupin stories it’s much closer to hardboiled crime-fiction than the knockabout romps that make up much of Lupin’s earlier adventures. Fujiko is also unafraid to use her physical charms to get what she wants, and is able to wrap most men – and some women – around her little finger. It’s a decidedly raunchy affair and Fujiko’s (ahem) assets are frequently on display from the stylish opening sequence onwards. Suffice to say if you’re offended by cartoon boobs, this isn’t the show for you.
Director Sayo Yamamoto is the first female director in the history of the franchise and she has brought something genuinely unique to the characters. Even if it occasionally goes to some dark, disturbing places, it never feels gratuitous or unwarranted. The rest of the usual Lupin cast also feature regularly, with the master thief’s usual partner-in-crime Jingen and Goemon cropping up early on. Their portrayal in this show, varies slightly from their usual character but they are not completely unrecognisable. In contrast, the gang’s nemesis. the doggedly determined Inspector Zenigata, is much less sympathetic than usual here, While usually a well-intentioned buffoon, in this incarnation he behaves in a way that often seems out of character. In this series he’s also given a smitten sidekick, the effete Oscar, who is one of the less welcome additions.
The first thing anyone will notice about The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, is it’s visual style. Love it or hate it, you can’t argue with the fact that it has one of the most distinctive looks seen in anime for some time. It’s closer to original artist Monkey Punch’s original art style than any previous Lupin anime, with strong lines and scratchy shading. If you prefer your anime to have a uniform and more traditional look, it might put you off. But you’d be missing out, as this really is one of the most stunning looking anime of recent years, and is particularly glorious on blu-ray. It’s like a film-noir style hard-boiled crime comic brought to life, with dastardly crooks, leggy dames, smoky atmospheres and a jazzy soundtrack. In this context Fujiko herself makes a fascinating lead, the ultimate femme fatale.The sense of retro-charm is added to by its period setting, events seemingly taking place in the 60s of Monkey Punch’s original comics. With no smartphones or internet to break the illusion, the sense of time and place is perfectly captured and suits the material down to the ground.
It’s not without faults. The ongoing plot isn’t quite as enjoyable as the stand-alone episodes, which feel much more like ‘classic’ Lupin. The animation occasionally takes a drop in quality and some sections look a lot better than others. There are also some problems with characterisation; Oscar, for example, is not exactly the most flattering portrayal of a gay character. Funimation’s dub is also a mixed bag- although Fujiko herself sounds suitably sultry, and Jingen is well cast, other characters such as Lupin and Zenigata sound just plain wrong.
Fans only familiar with Lupin through Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro might be disappointed at this new direction. However, this is just as valid an interpretation of the source material as the Ghibli master’s take. And much as I love that particular movie, in all honesty this is probably closer in spirit to the original than Miyazaki’s soft-hearted version.
Fujiko’s adventures might have divided fans, but it could be argued it’s better to be loved by some and hated by others than to be quite liked by everybody. The fact that a franchise can still challenge its audience and reinvent itself more than forty years after it began is nothing short of remarkable. Overall, the Woman Called Fujiko Mine is a fantastically stylish series, unlike anything else you’ll see this year. If you’re hoping for classic-style Lupin you could be disappointed, but for the more open-minded fan after something different, then this comes very much recommended.