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Lupin III: The First (2019)

Perceived wisdom has it that Japan produces some of the most dynamic and visually striking hand-drawn animation in the world, but when it comes to 3D CG, Japan lags considerably behind their Hollywood counterparts. Takashi Yamazaki has no time for your perceived wisdom and has produced some of the best looking CG animation to come out of Japan in his past films in Stand By Me Doraemon and Dragon Quest Your StoryThese films apparently impressed TMS enough to give Yamazaki the keys to the kingdom to one of Japan's cultural crown jewels, taking one of Japan's most beloved characters into three dimensions for the first time. Enter Lupin III: The First.

Created by the late Monkey Punch, Arsene Lupin III, world-renowned gentleman thief and grandson of the notorious original Lupin (who was himself created by French author Maurice LeBlanc) first appeared in manga form in 1967.  Since then he's gone on to star in six TV series, 10 movies and numerous TV specials. This is, however, his first-ever all CGI outing.

While the tech may be cutting-edge, the story is reassuringly familiar. It all starts when Lupin is trying to get his hands on a valuable McGuffin. In this case, it's the diary of a highly regard archaeologist called Bresson, that is supposedly the one thing his grandfather failed to steal. Lupin isn't the only one who wants it though- it's also saught by a shadowy cabal of Nazis, who aim to use it to find a legendary artefact they intend to use to restore the Third Reich.

Lupin III The First made a big impact on the animation community when the first trailer dropped in 2019. It caught the eye of a wide variety of fans, including those who knew nothing about Lupin or don't normally like anime. The stylised, incredibly cartoony animation really made it stand out from other CG animation, which typically chases realism and hi-fidelity above all. 

The film translates the style of Lupin into 3D perfectly. In western terms, we think of Lupin III as 'anime' but it's also unashamedly a cartoon with its larger than life characters, exaggerated action and slapstick humour. The characters are all incredibly distinctive, which is probably why they translate so well into the new medium. Lupin himself could have sprung straight from the TV series, with his sideburns, lanky frame and natty red jacket and yellow tie combo instantly recognisable. Added to that is an extraordinary level of detail and texture- his hair looks so fluffy you almost feel you could touch it. All of the rest of Lupin's gang is also present and correct and rendered faithfully to their iconic looks. Lupin's right-hand man, sharply dressed sharpshooter Jigen and noble samurai Goemon are there to lend a hand. As, after a fashion, is on-again-off-again love interest and Lupin's number one weakness femme fatale Fujiko Mine. And anywhere that Lupin goes, doggedly determined Interpol agent Inspector Zenigatta won't be far behind.

The First also introduces new characters, all of whom feel like they fit in perfectly with the Lupin world. Reluctant thief and aspiring archaeologist Laetitia is a typical 'Lupin girl'- naive and sweet-natured, caught up in events beyond her control.  The villains are also suitably dastardly- well, they are actual nazis after all.

Where Japanese CG often falls down is in the animation itself. Their attempt to recreate the look of anime in 3D is normally doomed to failure as that style of animation is ill-suited for CG. However, Lupin has a more cartoony look, rather than what is often considered a more typical anime style. This style of movement translates much better into the CG, and its lack of realism also keeps it well clear of the uncanny valley. 

The movement is also true to its two-dimensional roots. The animation perfectly captures Lupin's distinctive gait, Fujiko's slinky movement and Zenigata's run. It's hard to imagine how it could have been translated into 3D any better.

Beyond the characters, the brilliance extends to props and locations. Lupin's trademark yellow Fiat is perfectly recreated to allow for thrilling car chases and the thief's favoured model of gun is also true to his roots. The Lupin franchise has always been influenced by James Bond and its globetrotting storylines, but for The First, there's more than a hint of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure.

 After a pre-credits flashback, the film starts in a beautifully rendered Paris, with a thrilling heist and daring escape across the rooftops. This opening is classic Lupin and serves as a great introduction to the character for newcomers. Like the series's best-known outing Hayao Miyazaki's The Castle Of Cagliostro this film is extremely friendly to those who have never seen one frame of Lupin before. It works well as a standalone story, with no prior knowledge required. The regular characters are such archetypes that any mildly media-literate viewer will be up to speed in no time. If you are an established fan though, even if your only prior exposure was Caagliostro, you'll definitely enjoy this on a deeper level. You'll catch, for example, that this film's end is a direct nod to the finale of Miyazaki's.

The plot itself is pretty perfunctory, ultimately an excuse for globetrotting adventures and to deliver as much classic Lupin action as they can possibly fit in the 90-ish minutes run time. But Lupin was never really about the plot, as much as it was about the characters and set-pieces of Lupin outsmarting the real bad guys. And it's always fun to see Lupin coming out on top. 


The Lupin franchise is more than 50 years old, but each new anime adaptation has been set in broadly contemporary times. However, the story of this film starts in World War II, with the bulk of it taking place in a delightfully unspecific time "more than a decade later". Based on estimated character ages, that probably puts it roughly at around somewhere in the early to mid-sixties.

Does that make this a reboot? A Prequel? It doesn't really matter, but the period setting is a shrewd move and suits the sense of retro-cool that the film exudes. This is also illustrated by the soundtrack. Composer Yuji Ono has given the franchise its distinctive jazzy sound scoring the majority of its outings throughout its existence- and he's on top form here. Most famously, he also wrote Lupin's memorable theme song, which is also used to good effect. 

The icing of the cake for anyone who has been watching Lupin in English for a long time will be the film's dub. Localisers NYAV Post and GKIDS Films have very smartly brought back the cast who have been playing the central roles since the Geneon dubs produced of the 1977-79 TV series in the mid 2000's, later broadcast on Adult SwimTony Oliver (Lupin), Richard Epcar (Jigen), Michelle Ruff (Fujiko), Lex Lang (Goemon) and Doug Erholtz (Zenigata) have become very at home in these roles over the past 15 years or so and it shows. Oliver brings the right cocky swagger mixed with goofy charm and Ruff does whatever the audio equivalent of 'smoulder' is. It suits the film down to the ground.

Any complaints? Lupin has never been a series that would be lauded for its strong female characterisation. Any women characters who show up tend to be either pure and perfect angels or seductive slinky sex-bombs. The First doesn't do anything to change that impression, as the only two female characters in the film fit perfectly into those roles. As the only regular female character in the cast, its true that Fujiko is a bad-ass who could probably run rings around the rest of the crew, but at the end of the day, she's still a cartoon stereotype. But then, so is basically everyone else here, so it seems churlish to complain too much.

Some fans may also feel that Lupin's cohorts don't get too much screentime. However, this is very much Lupin's story and each of the cast is given a spotlight to show off their trademarks. Jigen gets to show off his shooting skills, Goemon gets to use his beloved blade and Fujiko uses her feminine charms to come out on top. And of course, poor old Zenigata will still do whatever it takes to try and get Lupin behind bars.

Ultimately though, there is very little to grumble about in what is an immensely watchable romp that will entertain you from the first frame until the credits roll.  Lupin III The First is probably the gentleman thief's most crowd-pleasing outing since Cagliostro. It may be Lupin's first adventure in CG, but when it's as good as this, we hope it won't be his last.

 FORMAT: Theatrical  [October 23/Digital(December)]/Blu-Ray (Jan 21) FROM: GKIDS FILMS/ ANIME LTD [2021] RATING: PG-13 RUNNING TIME:1 hr 33 mins



IN A NUTSHELL: Good old-fashioned fun that's guaranteed to leave you with a big goofy grin on your face.