Lupin III hits the big screen!
Lupin III is one of Japan's most popular animated franchises of all time. Like the Bond films it emulates, Lupin III has been reinvented for each generation to keep it relevant. For example, Lupin took a turn for the kinder when famed animator Hayao Miyazaki assumed the helm. After working on the series for a bit, Miyazaki created The Castle of Cagliostro, a full-length feature film that softened Lupin's character while heightening the drama beyond the typical television episode. This movie is widely praised; most consider it a cornerstone film of early anime.
Before The Castle of Cagliostro, there was The Secret of Mamo. Lupin's first foray onto the big screen is a rougher, slower, and overall weaker adaptation of the series. Though flawed, The Secret of Mamo does present a mature side of Lupin and his gang. The film has plenty of assets in its favor beyond Fujiko's ample breasts.
Facts of the Case
Lupin steals a pebble from an Egyptian pyramid for Fujiko. The stone is for her mysterious partner, Mamo; it happens to be the philosopher's stone, which Harry Potter fans should recognize. With the right tweak, this stone can provide eternal life to its wielder.
Is Mamo worthy of this eternal gift? Does he truly desire Fujiko, or is he using her as a pawn? These questions consume Lupin as he becomes involved with the shadowy Mamo.
Lupin III is fun to watch for its authentically retro vibe. The clothes are funky, the sideburns are long, and the attitude is far out. Lupin III incorporates hot topics of the time, such as the fascination with Egyptology, the Loch Ness Monster, and eternal life. Breezy forays through highbrow pursuits such as fine art and literature are evocative of the cultured 1970s hipster.
The combination of retro appeal and zany antics makes Lupin III a pleasant diversion—in small doses. The episodes all have slow parts, as well as frequent jump cuts to action sequences where the back story is not explained. Zenigata will suddenly appear with a battalion of troops, and Lupin jumps into his handy getaway vehicle. How Zenigata arrived or where Lupin stashed a car is never explained. We either accept it or pull our hair out in frustration. Most of the impossible escapes are chalked up to Lupin's clairvoyant foresight and cleverness: he almost always knew you were going to perform action A and has already prepared countermeasure B. It is like when Bill and Ted summoned trashcans to blind the cops, only without the time traveling phone booth.
The Secret of Mamo has the unfortunate effect of magnifying Lupin III's flaws. The episodes' hallucinogenic riffs are moderately interesting from a historical perspective, but ultimately unconvincing. They are brief and never become more than a minor annoyance. The Secret of Mamo contains extended bouts of surrealism that are equally unconvincing, but you have to sit through them for long minutes. The episodes contain major but unexplained plot twists that throw a spin on the action at the last minute. The Secret of Mamo twists so much that it spins in a worn socket, rattling emptily.
The entire film is an unbroken string of jump cuts and deux ex machinas. Lupin was here, now he's there. Zenigata is defeated, then instantaneously absorbs intimate details of Lupin's whereabouts and arrives to the destination ahead of time. Mamo lives in a shack, which hides a vast industrial complex, which masks a gargantuan canyon, which opens to a cosmic portal to infinity. Nothing is solid long enough for us to get a foothold, much less develop any emotional investment. Picture a feature length episode of Scooby Doo where the last 45 minutes consists of people pulling off masks, revealing nested secret identities. When the last mask comes off, you might no longer care who the actual villain was.
This lack of cohesion is even more unbearable in the last act, where the formerly wacky-yet-rooted-in-realism events degenerate into an unfathomable sci-fi treatise on being god. After sitting through it three times in two different languages, I still neither know nor care what happened.
The transfer is not as clean as the recent Geneon (Pioneer) releases. In my review of Lupin the Third: Love Heist, I did a comparison of the pre- and post-cleanup versions of the transfer. This DVD looks more like the pre cleanup. The colors are not at all stable, with shades shifting even during static shots. The black levels are neither stable nor solid. There are gross smudges and fingerprints on some of the cels; not the fault of the transfer but present nonetheless. There are many instances of softness and the matte seems to shift on occasion. The video quality isn't poor, especially given the age of the print, it simply isn't impressive. In any case, the anamorphic presentation is an improvement over the former DVD release by Image Entertainment.
There are two audio options: Japanese mono and English 5.1. The conundrum from other Geneon releases remains: watch the original track with spartan subtitles or listen to a completely reworked soundtrack. Here's the rub. Geneon had modern writers rework the entire script from the ground up using the same voice cast from the episode DVDs. This approach lends moments of humor that would be otherwise impossible, such as hearing an imitation George Bush belittled by Mamo. The English version is coarser and trendier than the Japanese track, and works well enough at first. It fails in the conceptual realm, however, and the last half of the film is conceptual in nature. Thus we have entire fabricated conversations that have little to do with the original thrust of the narrative.
The alternative is to listen in Japanese with subtitles. In this case, the subtitles are actually superior to the episodic releases. In the TV show DVDs, the subtitles were maddeningly sparse, leaving you with little idea of what was truly taking place. Here the subs are moderately better, making an attempt to capture the essence of the conversations. There are definite gaps, but even so, you absorb more of the story than is presented with the English version. The 5.1 track is more open and occasionally shines through use of the subwoofer and surrounds, but to really appreciate the story, you must give the Japanese track a spin.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fortunately, there are aspects of the film that render it somewhat
entertaining, and few of them involve Lupin or Mamo. The most interesting
characters are Jigen, Goemon, and Fujiko. These satellites orbit Lupin to
provide meaty interaction and conflict. Jigen opens up a little bit in The
Secret of Mamo, chastising Lupin for his boorish and illogical behavior. If
you think about it, this is a remarkable departure from the norm. My main
criticism of this series is Lupin's illogical behavior. He is supposed to be a
master thief, but he never holds onto the loot and drops everything to please
Fujiko. Jigen's complaints in this movie would be like Barney turning to Fred
and saying, "You know, 'Yabba Dabba Doo' is meaningless and you sound
stupid when you say it. You treat your wife like crap. By the way, you can't run
a car with your feet. Read a physics manual, pal!"
The real draw (no pun intended) is Fujiko. In The Secret of Mamo, Fujiko gets to use all of her feminine assets. Fujiko is no less contrary or shallow a character, but she gets to open up and reveal her true…ahh, forget it: she shows her breasts. In an era where most anime temptresses are teases, it is nice to see the goods for once. Or more than once in this case.
It is easy to get overwhelmed by the epic scope of the themes in The Secret of Mamo, but there are some weighty concepts floating around. This film tackles cloning, immortality, personal identity, love, partnership, honor, and sacrifice. Just because the vehicle is ponderous doesn't mean the goods are bad.
I'm impressed with the extras, though on paper they might not seem impressive. Good extras help sell the film, generate a sense of excitement about what you are watching. Even a cleverly designed menu is a little thing that can enhance your mindset. This DVD comes packaged with two physical extras, a metal Lupin keychain and a reproduction booklet. The booklet is not a strict recreation of the 1978 program that was handed out to audiences in the theater. That booklet emphasized two things, and they are both in Fujiko's brassiere. Geneon has taken a slightly more discreet approach while maintaining the energetic feel of the original marketing. For the curious, there is a scanned version of the original program on the DVD, as well as a slightly extended version of the coroner's report and some conceptual artwork.
A little bit of Lupin goes a long way, and this is a lot of Lupin. True fans of the series will probably enjoy this deeper glimpse into the dynamics of Lupin's circle. If you can ignore the inexplicable escapes, forgive the frequent Zenigata interruptions, and overlook the heady denouement, you'll find a more ambitious approach to Lupin than the TV episodes allow. Geneon has provided ample extras and moderate audio-visual improvement. Lupin lovers rejoice; others should seek The Castle of Cagliostro.
Mamo, you are guilty of providing one of the lamest anime endings ever. If Fujiko wasn't here to distract me with her stunning good looks, I'd have you thrown in the slammer.
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