Lupin the Third (voiced by Yasuo Yamada), the world’s most notorious thief and all-round daredevil, is dead. His body entombed in a gothic castle in faraway Transylvania. Interpol’s Inspector Zenigata (Goro Naya) races to the spot to ensure his nemesis really has left this mortal coil, but Lupin springs out of his coffin dressed in Dracula’s cape! Rumours of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. Aided by his criminal cohorts, ace sharpshooter Jigen (Kiyoshi Komori) and stoic samurai Goemon (Makio Inoue), Lupin is soon back to his old tricks. His arch-rival and occasional lover, the babelicious Fujiko Mine (Eiko Masuyama) swindles him into stealing “the Philosopher’s Stone” from an Egyptian tomb, without revealing she is working for the mysterious Mamo (Kô Nishimura), who dwells in a subterranean city drawn from the great civilisations of the past and inhabited by his own clones and the reincarnated likes of Adolf Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte. Is Mamo a mad prophet, a pseudonym for eccentric billionaire Howard Lockwood, or something even more sinister?
Lupin the Third is one of the enduring classic characters in Japanese animation. Created by Monkey Punch, pseudonym for Kazuhiko Kato, and loosely derived from the Arsène Lupin stories by Maurice Leblanc (whose estate plagued the series with lawsuits), the manga first reached the screen as a 1969 short film by Gisaburo Sugii. This was followed by two hit television series in 1971 and 1977, a one-off live-action adaptation called Strange Psychokinetic Strategy (1974), and a string of anime feature films that continue to this day. Lupin’s best known big screen adventure remains Castle of Cagliostro (1979) - not least because it marked the directorial debut of a certain Hayao Miyazaki. Cagliostro is a masterpiece, but remains somewhat controversial for avid Lupin fanatics, some of whom accuse Miyazaki of softening the ruthless antihero whose exploits were often as bawdy and amoral as they were action packed. Many would instead cite the earlier, darker, more cynical The Mystery of Mamo (retitled Secret of Mamo by distributors Manga Entertainment) as the definitive Lupin movie.
Its tonal and stylistic differences are apparent from the offset. The artwork is a lot closer to Monkey Punch’s anarchic style, midway between Jean-Pierre Melville thrillers and Mad Magazine (an acknowledged influence), while the humour is noticeably zanier and lustier. Fujiko, an almost wholesome presence in Cagliostro, is very much the femme fatale here, exhibiting a strong Barbarella (1967) influence: all wanton lips and seductive curves with bosoms that out to be registered as weapons of mass distraction. She’s no mere scarlet harlot and wily enough to outfox Lupin on more than one occasion. Tension erupts between firm friends as Lupin and co. briefly fall out over his ongoing erotic obsession with Fujiko. In another pleasingly poignant character detail the film reveals Zenigata is so obsessed with catching Lupin, his daughter has grown up without ever seeing him. Later the film spoofs the Hitchcockian duality between these lifelong antagonists as they are handcuffed together and forced to rely on each other to escape an exploding island.
The Lupin movies had a helter-skelter pace unmatched till Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) rolled along, with set-pieces that live action cinema would take three decades to mimic. Notably a chase through the sewers that climaxes as Goemon slices a helicopter in half with is samurai sword. The film can be surprisingly violent, e.g. when helicopter machineguns rip through a crowded Parisian restaurant, but is not explicit. It boils down to James Bond action wedded to a science fiction plot with Hitchockian undertones and spaghetti western imagery, signed off with a sublime disco score. That’s quite a cocktail. Especially when laced with an intelligent, intricately crafted story full of scary ideas that would not be out of place in a Nigel Kneale Quatermass screenplay. The plot evolves into a debate between free will, as embodied by our anarchic antihero, and the efforts of would-be omniscient forces to manipulate the course of human history. Be they an insane extraterrestrial presence with delusions of godhood or a shadowy presidential aide (Toru Ohira), loosely modelled on Henry Kissinger. It’s a sexy, slam-bang caper film with some very smart ideas.