Lupin III: The First is the first computer-generated entry in the long-running franchise about the thieving adventures of the grandson of France’s famous thief Arsène Lupin and his merry band of frenemies. And while its story retreads old ground a little too much, it wears its new 3D animation style well. Lupin III: The First doesn’t stray far from its roots, relying heavily on the long-running franchise’s staples, but it does offer up a serviceable romp that doesn’t wear out its welcome.The latest in the series is directed and written by Takashi Yamazaki, who’s an expert in this sort of thing: He directed 2014’s Stand by Me Doraemon, another CG take on a long-running Japanese franchise. The critical and financial success of that film no doubt inspired, at least partially, the production of this one, and Lupin’s transition to CG works just as well this time around.
With the new visual style, the detailed textures of the film’s vehicles, clothing and other objects practically pop off the screen. Rather than total realism, Yamazaki seems to be aiming for something more cartoon-like, and some of the best shots almost look like fluid claymation. Lupin has always been about gravity-defying leaps and bounds, and this animation style fits perfectly. When jumping around the screen, Lupin’s body warps and stretches — not to the point where he loses all sense of weight, but just enough so he remains distinctly Lupin.
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But there’s an important point where the computer-generated animation isn’t quite there: the faces. In some shots, the voiceover doesn’t quite match the lip flaps — a phenomenon fans of 2D anime are quite used to, but one that stands out even more when the characters are rendered in 3D. In other shots, the faces are far too expressive: even a single sentence by Inspector Zenigata or Mine Fujiko involves, inexplicably, their mouths bouncing around in 10 different directions. The Lupin model may be the worst offender here: His smirk flies all over his face and feels too, well, smirky. That said, it is fun to see the old Lupin staples play out in 3D form — which is good, because Yamazaki trots them out one after another. The film is a virtual greatest hits of Lupin material — if you’ve seen it before, it’s here.
Lupin was born 52 years ago as a risqué, off-the-wall manga by Kazuhiko Kato, alias Monkey Punch, and it has been 50 years since the series was first put to animation, becoming a multi-generational Japanese institution à la Godzilla or Sazae-san. Its many adaptations, helmed by a revolving door of screenwriters and directors, have made Lupin a semi-blank slate not unlike James Bond in the West: As long as directors don’t veer too far out of bounds, they’re free to infuse the franchise with their own sensibilities and styles.
Of the many notable directors to have taken a crack at Lupin over the years, the one who left the most memorable mark is Hayao Miyazaki, whose pre-Ghibli directorial career included several episodes of TV Lupin and the film Castle of Cagliostro. Miyazaki introduced audiences to a kinder, gentler Lupin III who didn’t kill anyone and whose love for the film’s damsel in distress was entirely chaste.
It’s clearly this version of Lupin that Yamazaki had in mind when creating Lupin III: The First (yes, the title does sound bizarre when read out loud). Recent takes like The Woman Called Fujiko Mine or the Lupin the IIIrd films brought Lupin back to his gritty roots, but The First is aimed squarely at families, for better and for worse.
The damsel this time is Laetitia (Suzu Hirose), a budding Indiana Jones type obsessed with the Bresson Diary, written by an archaeologist killed by the Nazis during World War II for refusing to give up the secrets contained in said diary. The film kicks off some 20 years later (points to Yamazaki for setting the film in a pre-digital timeframe, where Lupin works best) as Laetitia attempts to steal the diary. She’s being manipulated by her grandfather, a rather sinister-looking fellow who has ties to a group of exiled Nazis convinced the Führer is alive and well in South America. As the film progresses, newbie thief Laetitia teams up with master swindler Lupin to learn the truth about the diary — which, as it turns out, is tied to the pasts of both characters.
The resulting romp is fun, but doesn’t hold a lot of surprises for those who’ve been around the moviegoing block a few times. The last third of the film in particular makes some very explicit references to Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade — perhaps Yamazaki has made the calculation that most young kids haven’t seen it, and that their parents will forgive it as a loving tribute. It does feel good to see a beloved hero clock some Nazis again.
But the film that gets the most shout-outs by far is Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro, including an ending theme song — and ending — meant very deliberately to evoke that film. Cagliostro remains the greatest of all Lupin films, after all, and for the famous thief’s first CG romp, it makes a certain amount of sense to cling to the best of the franchise.