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To Catch A Thief: The Lupin III Files

This month saw the passing of legendary manga artist Monkey Punch (real name Kazuhiko Kato) creator of the iconic Lupin III. Lupin might not quite be a household name in the English-speaking world, but it is one of the longest-running and most recognisable franchises in Japanese pop culture. It has developed a considerable following both in its home country and around the world- proving particularly popular in parts of mainland Europe. With a history spanning back over fifty years (both on screen and on the page) it's got a level of mainstream recognition in Japan that few series could ever dream of.

With its jazzy soundtrack, killer opening sequence and sharply dressed lead, it positively oozes authentic retro cool. Long before Cowboy Bebop's Spike Spiegel strutted across our screens, Lupin was the best dressed guy in anime. It's no wonder Lupin's been stealing hearts around the world for many years.

Following the adventures of the titular gentleman thief and his cohorts, his globe-trotting adventures have so-far encompassed six television series,  several videos, numerous feature films and annual TV specials every year between 1989 and 2013. Despite this, Lupin has taken his time to make an impact in the US and UK.

Lupin made his first appearance in the anthology Weekly Manga Action back in 1967. The manga was a straightforward comedic romp with a Lupin who was much more amoral and womanising than his eventual animated incarnation. The original manga ran until 1972, with a second run (New Lupin III) kicking off in 1977. It has been revived several times since, with the ageing Monkey Punch himself taking less hands-on involvement. It's most recent series started as recently as 2009.

Originally, Monkey Punch was inspired by the classic Arsene Lupin books by French author Maurice Leblanc. Like his manga descendent, the original Lupin was a gentleman thief, famous for pulling off daring heists and regularly humiliating the authorities. However, with a typically Japanese cavalier disregard for copyright, Monkey Punch failed to secure the rights to the characters from the Leblanc estate (the author himself having long since passed away). Although a judge later ruled that the estate had no claim over Lupin III in Japan, the legal issues lead to the character being renamed in various western releases, as Wolf, Rupan III or even Cliffhanger. With the copyright expired, we have more recently been able to get our Lupin anime with names intact. Ironically, Leblanc fell foul of copyright laws himself, when Arthur Conan Doyle (who he greatly admired) refused permission for Sherlock Holmes to appear in a story. In retaliation, the “Herlock Sholmes” that eventually appeared in Leblanc's novel was a bumbling fool who Lupin effortlessly ran rings around.

On the small screen, Lupin's first 26 episode Television series aired in 1971, and introduced wider Japanese audiences to Lupin and the gang for the first time. The original manga artist maintained to the end that the darker first series is the screen version that is closest in spirit to his original work. The original series is most notable for modern fans for the involvement of both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who together worked on or directed numerous episodes.

The second series- Lupin III part II- would prove much more successful, running for a whopping 155 episodes between 1977 and 1980.  This time round Miyazaki directed only two episodes (under a pseudonym) but Takahata had moved on.  Lupin would later return for Part III, which ran for 50 episodes starting in March 1984.

Since 1989's Goodbye Lady Liberty, TV specials became an institution, with one airing every year. Several of them were licensed by Funimation, and later ones by Discotek (who have also published several seasons of the TV shows).  The specials vary wildly in both tone and quality, but the home crowd has continued to eat them up, with a new one airing earlier this year.

2012 saw the first Lupin TV series in over two decades, with The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. The series takes a somewhat different approach, with Lupin's sometime love-interest Fujiko taking centre-stage and giving her an origin story of sorts.

The series 'proper' returned in 2015 with Lupin III Part IV. Also known as 'The Italian Adventure', it saw Lupin and his gang give the globe-trotting a rest for a while and base themselves in Italy (it was also a Japan/Italy co-production).  This was followed in 2018 by Part V, which moves the action to France.

Lupin and his crew have to date appeared in eight theatrical outings, starting with The Secret of Mamo in 1978.  The second big-screen adventure Castle of Cagliostro is the best known, seeing as it was the debut feature from one Hayao Miyazaki. Although many would argue that it is Lupin and the gang's finest hour, it's fairy tale storyline and soft hearted version of Lupin means that it was not well liked by Monkey Punch himself. In 2013, Lupin returned to cinema screens for the first time since 1996's Dead Or Alive in a crossover with popular character Detective Conan (Case Closed). In 2014 the movie Jingen's Gravestone was released as a continuation of the Fujiko Mine series. This was followed up by 2017's Chikemuri no Ishikawa Goemon and will continue in Mine Fujiko no Uso in May 2019. The series was also adapted into a kitsch 1974 live-action film, with another released in 2014. There were even plans for a Hollywood take on the character at one point, but all has been quiet since the early 2000s.

Over the years he has pulled off some truly audacious crimes of the kind that has earned him his place as the world's most wanted, such as stealing a rare diamond or Napoleon's Dictionary. He has even managed to steal both the Statue Of Liberty AND The statue of Christ the Redeemer from Rio.

It's also got a wonderfully flexible concept, that has lead to adventures that vary wildly in tone. It can be goofy and light-hearted, or darker and hard-boiled. It can range from the romantic fairy-tale style caper of Castle of Cagliostro to the more mature Secret Of Mamo, which features stronger violence and nudity.

Even with such a wide variety of styles on display, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine stands out. Not only because the plot focusses on Fujiko rather than Lupin, but the whole thing is much grittier and more serious than any previous Lupin anime. It also uses a refreshingly unique visual style that is closer to Monkey Punch's original, western-influenced, scratchily drawn comic art than any other previous adaptation. If your only experience of the franchise is Cagliostro then you're in for a shock- this is a different beast entirely

The 13 episode series was directed by future Yuri on Ice creator Sayo Yamamoto, the first female director in the franchise's history. Easily the raunchiest Lupin series, it features a version of Fujiko completely unafraid to use her sexuality to get what she wants. Like any other part of the Lupin cannon, it can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the property.

What exactly is the enduring appeal of Lupin for so many? A lot has been made over the years of the influence of James Bond. With his eye for the ladies and ever-changing exotic locations, there is admittedly a certain similarity to Ian Fleming's creation- albeit on the opposite side of the law. The bad guys he occasionally goes up against are often Bond villains in all but name, with dastardly plots to take over the world.

Perhaps the biggest secret of Lupin's lasting popularity, however, is its cast's likeability. Frequently placing highly in favourite character polls, its leads have stood the test of time. However outlandish their adventures, or cunning their schemes, it's the characters that have kept audiences coming back time and time again- and doubtless will for many years to come

Meet The Gang

Arsene Lupin III. Grandson of the French gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, Lupin junior has stayed in the family business. He's a much smarter cookie than his goofy, womanising exterior would suggest, and is a very accomplished thief and a master of disguise. However, he's also honourable and loyal and has often taken on much worse criminals for what he feels is right, particularly where protecting women and children are concerned.

Jigen. An ace marksman and a loyal cohort, bearded Jigen is Lupin's right-hand man. Other characters come and go, but only Jigen has stuck by him through thick and thin.

Goemon.  A Master swordsman descended from a legendary samurai-thief, Goemon usually makes up the third part of Lupin's team.

Fujiko Mine. Beautiful but deadly, and every bit his equal, the femme fatale Fujiko is Lupin's on-again/off-again love interest,  but she's just as likely to be working against him as with him. In the 2012 TV series, she finally gets to take centre stage.

Inspector Zenigata. Wherever Lupin and co go, the doggedly determined cop Zenigata is sure to follow. He joined Interpol so he could chase him anywhere around the world. The Tom and Jerry style relationship between the two is one of the series' key charms, and beneath it all they have a grudging respect, even affection for each other..kind of.

This is an updated version of an article originally published in MyM Magazine.