First created by artist Monkey Punch in 1967, the adventures of gentlemen thief Lupin III have generated multiple mangas, tv series, and films depicting a variety of escapades. During a press interview for Lupin III vs. Detective Conan: The Movie (2013), Monkey Punch proclaimed his interest in seeing his creation make the transition to 3D animation and, with Lupin III: The First, that desire is fully realized. Under the supervision of director Takashi Yamazaki (Stand by Me Doraemon), who also wrote the script, with a score from series favorite Yuji Ohno, and a modicum of influence from animators who’ve worked on Lupin III in some capacity throughout the decades, a new globe-trotting adventure is born which finds the skilled cracksman and his familiar band of cohorts in a very different kind of quest. Though Monkey Punch passed away in 2019, unable to see the final version of Lupin III: The First, he’d no doubt be proud of the finished product as it hits all the hallmarks of a Lupin III escapade while being accessible for an entirely new audience.
During World War II, Nazi leader Gerard (Tatsuya Fujiwara/Paul Guyet) sought out a rumored treasure that only archeologist Bresson (Kazuaki Ito/Marc Thompson) possessed the knowledge to acquire. Years after the fall of the Third Reich, an opportunity to acquire Bresson’s diary arises and he hires Fujiko Mine (Miyuki Sawashiro/Michelle Ruff) to acquire it for him. What he doesn’t realize is that Lupin III (Kanichi Kurita/Tony Oliver) is looking for it, too, and he’s not going to let anyone associated with Hitler acquire it. Thus begins an adventure that will take Lupin III, his companions Daisuke Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi/Richard Epcar) and Goemon Ishikawa (Daisuke Namikawa/Lex Lang), along with several others, across the world in a bid to stop the imminent resurgence of the Third Reich.
First, an admission: I didn’t know anything about the Lupin III series first-hand prior to viewing the film and conducted research ahead of writing this home release review. I point that out to provide context to what follows.
In terms of creating a globe-trotting adventure, Yamazaki absolutely succeeds. The trek to solve the mystery of Bresson’s diary sends Lupin and company exploring France, Mexico, and Brazil with as much ease as a James Bond or Fast & Furious story with one piece of new information leading to a new place, a new challenge, and the potential for world destruction. While there is certainly a spirit of espionage throughout The First, I couldn’t help but think of a different series given the focus on archeological and scientific exploration amid the threat of Nazis: Indiana Jones. This particular comparison coming into focus as the battle for control of a diary leading to a prize protected by three challenges makes the proverbial grail seem like the one from a certain Last Crusade (1989). This does not detract from the joyful, dare I say, threat-free, experience but merely provided a bit of nostalgia to help connect with the material. This bit being particularly necessary because the film isn’t entirely accessible to new viewers as it doesn’t spend a lot of time digging into Lupin’s various cohorts, but then, the film doesn’t really need to do that in order for audiences to enjoy it. Instead, the film puts the emotional weight on Lupin and the mysterious Laetitia (Suzu Hirose/ Laurie C. Hymes), whose equal respective connection to the Bresson Diary drives the stakes of the film about as much as Lupin’s interest in it. Doing research, I could not confirm whether The First is intended to be an early adventure or merely just one which ties directly to Lupin’s grandfather, the original gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, but that becomes less and less of a concern as the adventure gets underway.
If your connection to the source material comes from the manga or previous works, I heartily recommend watching the film with the original Japanese audio. It’s not just because the dialogue matches more comfortably with the animation this way, but that the vocal performances from the Japanese cast appear to more accurately present the characters in all their various shades without slipping into caricature. Whereas, in sampling the English Dub, Lupin III starts sounding like an entitled brat playing at being a master thief rather than actually being one. This is not to put down Tony Oliver’s work, so much as the dub doesn’t appear to match the emotional intent of the animation. That said, the score by Ohno is perhaps the best part about the entire production. It’s light and airy, offering a hint of intrigue during the action sequences, the brass notes landing with such percussive force that’s playful yet dangerous. It would be reductive to describe it as a kid-friendly version of Monty Norman’s work with the James Bond series, but it does possess a familiar type of bombast that’s perfectly encapsulates the energy of Lupin III himself: jolly, fun-loving, clever, and a touch perilous.
Whether you’re a newcomer looking to learn more or a longtime fan, the release from Shout! Factory includes over one and a half hours of bonus materials that range from interviews with the director and Japanese voice casts to a reunion of the English voice cast to a breakdown of the animation process to a brief look at the premiere of Lupin III: The First. Given the legacy of hand drawn animation, switching to 3D seems like more of a promotional ploy than an attempt at branching out into something new. (Look at the divisive reception to Studio Ghibli’s upcoming 3D animated Earwig and the Witch.) Here, however, it works as a middle ground between animation’s ability to create the impossible and the grounded nature of live-action films. Animated characters possess their own weight and heft, of course, it’s that the 3D style makes them just a little more lifelike. Granted the character designs are just a touch outside the realm of authentic, but it’s based on a manga, so who really cares. Delightfully, with the abundance of bonus features, you can learn first-hand about the creative process that brought The First to life.
Lupin III: The First may not go out of its way to explore or explain relationships between the central characters in a way that helps newcomers understand the depth of their connection, but the film is executed in such a way that this particular fact matters very little. Yamazaki’s entire tale is predicated on adventure and he gives that in spades. There’s barely a dull moment and the action sequences are full of splash and style. Lupin III: The First delivers what it promises: a good time.
Lupin III: The First Special Features
- Yellow Carpet Premiere (1:19)
- Animation Breakdown (18:11)
- Interview with Director and Japanese Cast (33:45)
- English Voice Cast Reunion (52:57)
Available on digital beginning December 15th, 2020.
Available on collectible steelbook, Blu-ray, and DVD January 12th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.