The First Third

There is a scene you know.

In films about racing, or that involve cars or vehicles in some way, there is a style of scene where the hero is experiencing some doubts. Usually it is after some difficult loss – perhaps a poor showing at a major race or a complete botching of the last job – and the hero is questioning their abilities. Whether they got cocky, emotional, or lost focus, something went wrong and it cost them. Now the hero is wounded and unsure of what to do next. Then they enter into a conversation with a wiser character, often an elder paternal type, who talks them through their doldrums. Inevitably the elder figure says, “Come here, let me show you something.”

That’s when the hero sees it.

The “classic” model in pristine condition. With a tug at a dusty old cover the car is revealed, obviously outdated but in perfect shape. It lacks modern conveniences and sensibilities, but it runs like a dream and would give any modern make a run for its money. “It’s got heart, kid.” A relic of a bygone era that makes up for outmoded design with a tireless spirit that simply cannot be replicated.

Such is the original Lupin III.

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Colloquially referred to either as either “part one” or “green jacket”, the 1971 Lupin III television series is the first outing of the titular Lupin on the small screen. Adapted from the Monkey Punch manga which had been running since 1967 and initially directed by Masaaki Osumi , Lupin III was an odd duck from its very inception. This was an anime explicitly targeted at a more adult audience, featuring a fair amount of violence and sexuality; while western audiences often flock to anime for precisely those qualities, this was all a bit scandalous at the time. This adult focus combined with its initial low ratings resulted in the ousting of Masaaki, and the studio brought in Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (yes, that Miyazaki and that Takahata) to replace him. But even with the softening that followed their arrival, Lupin – along with the Jigen the gunslinger, Fujiko the thief, and Goemon the warrior – was not an upright or moral hero. In fact, he and his team are much more a band of co-conspirators (at best!) rather than a heroic team of do-gooders. Episodes often revolve around a heist or evasion of the authorities, and while Lupin’s foes are clearly villainous individuals there is little doubt that he too is a mischievous scoundrel.

Green jacket Lupin is in many ways completely divorced from anime as we know it. Many of the features most often associated with anime are completely absent from the series. The show is episodic in nature, lacking in an overarching narrative or major plot to speak of. Characters are normal humans, for the most part, lacking in any specialized powers or external marketing gimmicks (beyond the aforementioned manga of course). It takes place in late 60s/early 70s  in what was then the modern day, but unlike current offerings it is not set in Japan; instead the setting is various locales across the globe, where hijinks and capers take place in decadent mansions, mountain fortresses, and private islands. Part one has no rogue’s gallery of colorful villains; in fact the only antagonist to speak of is inspector Zenigata, and truthfully it is hard to paint his struggles against Lupin’s craftiness as anything other than endearing.

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But Part One is different from most anime even beyond the broad thematic elements. It possesses many smaller details that even further separate it from other works in the medium. For one thing, these are adult characters. In fact, it is almost shocking when it is revealed that Fujiko Mine is a woman in her late 20s/early 30s – practically an endangered species in our current day and age. While Fujiko is highly sexualized in the style and manner consistent with other media at the time, much of the rest of the cast is awkward looking at best. Viewers looking for colorful hair, evocative costumes, and perfect features in their characters will be sorely disappointed by Lupin’s cast; the sight of Lupin’s hairy knuckles behind the wheel will turn many a stomach that is more accustomed to the oily sheen and flawless skin that most anime characters possess. Ladies and gentlemen, even the cars are still hand drawn! Not a CG automotive in sight.

Yet for all its differences and antiquated accoutrements, 1971’s Lupin the III is still unmistakably anime. When most fans say that they prefer anime because it is more ‘adult’ than western animation, they are likely referring to anime’s willingness to address issues of violence, sexuality, and deeper existential questions. However, I would argue that another key component to anime’s success is its strong sense of cinematic language. Even though green jacket Lupin is over forty-five years old, it still uses film techniques like fade cuts, frame composition, panning shots, and more to tell its stories. Take any episode of Lupin III and stack it against similar western animation from the era – most likely a Hannah-Barbera cartoon – and the differences will be shockingly apparent.

Take an obvious example like Daisuke Jigen checking his revolver and firing in the opening credits. The shot is framed from Jigen’s perspective as he looks over his pistol, lines up his shot, and fires. This simple touch, framing a shot from the character’s perspective, is rather basic by film-making standards, but is practically unheard of in western animation even in the modern day. You simply won’t find television animation in the west doing anything close to that in the 1970s, and there are plenty of other examples of cinematic flair in each and every episode.

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There are the small anime touches, too. Goemon’s blade is so very anime in its power and sharpness that defeating him and convincing him to join the team is something of an ‘arc’ for the show. Characters’ facial expressions exhibit some of the hallmarks that we are used to in this day and age, even if some favorites like sweat drops and red veins are absent. Lupin’s ability to hide his identity with a rubber mask is brilliant in how overtly impossible it should be. There are even a few villains that do go beyond the usual faire of James Bond second-stringers and enter wholly into anime-absurdity, such as the magician who is bulletproof, capable of levitation, and shoots fire from his fingertips.

But most importantly, Lupin III Part One is good. Really good. It is exciting and wild and unexpected. Its action sequences move with life that still shots cannot convey, yet screen caps will illustrate the beauty of its vistas and the depth of its backdrops. The cast is lovable, and even though their aims are selfish it is hard not to root for the Lupin crew as they bounce from caper to caper, gaining vast fortunes and unique treasures only to lose them in under twenty two minutes. It is all so riveting, so engrossing, and imminently enjoyable that it is no wonder Lupin continues to be made into the modern day.

So while the exterior might be a little old-fashioned, load up a few episodes on Crunchyroll and take it out for a spin around the block. You might be surprised at just how much growl is under the hood of this old classic.

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