This Week: Lupin VIII (Pilot Film)
Wherein the jacketed gentleman frolics about the stars, and looks alarmingly close to later Matt Smith era appearances in Doctor Who.
For as large and potentially intimidating the Lupin III franchise can seem as a television or film viewing experience, stretching all the way back to an initially unreleased pilot film finished in 1969, one of the strengths which comes along with that are all sorts of nooks and crannies it has tried exploring over the years.
This particular oddity comes from 1982, which is quite important in context. The Lupin III Part II television series, by far the most successful with 155 episodes to its name, had wrapped in 1980. Given the differences and tweaks to various styles and situations between it, Lupin III Part I, The Castle of Cagliostro and Mystery of Mamo, there was already a history of the animated material being rather malleable so long as some core characters and traits were retained. So for a new series to take place after Part II, and with Japan’s economy and eyes towards new markets swelling, trying something more different than any of the preceding works seems rather reasonable.
More specifically, Lupin VIII was supposed to be the new big television show entry of the series, and an international one at that. Bernard Deyries of DiC Entertainment (later Director for productions like Rainbow Brite and Character Designer for Inspector Gadget) teamed up with Tōkyō Movie Shinsha to provide additional funding, resources, and the like for generating a big splash. Rintaro was brought on as Director (who by this point already had the Galaxy Express 999 and Adieu Galaxy Express 999 films, in addition to the Space Pirate Captain Harlock series under his belt), which was a very high profile signing on. These far future versions of the classic characters would go through redesigns by Shingo Araki (whose resume in that department is extensive, and deserving of attention).
Even the function of the series, historically known for the criminal capers said characters would try to pull off, shifted gears.
While only a pilot of a would-be television show, this is where the film does begin to lose some of its gears for me.
The descendants of Lupin and Jigen are now no longer criminals, but more akin to private investigators. In this case, trying to solve a mystery relating to a young girl’s great great great grandfather and missing diamonds. This is itself understandable from a raw marketing perspective, as it does mean the age level of the program would be lower or easier to sell internationally. Lupin, Jigen, and Goemon are effectively the good guys, insofar as pretty much being law abiding citizens, though Fujiko’s group role is shrouded and potentially full of double crossing as always. Future Jigen even has a dedicated little scene of him unwrapping a lollipop to then place in his mouth, so he could retain at least some of the stick-in-mouth look one would achieve smoking cigarettes.
But, the further out one extrapolates, the more I am not sure this would have worked as a full weekly episodic series.
Inspector Zenigata, for instance, has even less here to do than he usually receives attention for. While in the past he was our often comedic and rarely successful “I’ll get you next time!” style police officer as he attempted to arrest our leads and foil their heists, here he is effectively just on pleasant but suspicious terms with everyone. The professional cop occasionally running into freelance investigators, essentially. All the while assuming one day Lupin VIII will turn to a life of crime, as his forefathers were notorious for, and is just playing a very long con game. While the door would be open for the occasional situational misunderstanding down the road, should this later Lupin be found by Zenigata in the wrong place at the wrong time while trying to do something else, that would quickly wear out its welcome as a plot device long term. Perhaps some cases may have called for Lupin VIII and Zenigata to cooperate together more closely, and I think some good television could come from such narratives.
But Zenigata still seems far more peripheral to the experience here than he does elsewhere in the franchise, if our leads are largely on the same side as him anyway.
The visual style of the what-could-have-been series though I do feel is a solid area in its favor however.
While looking swell was nothing new to the franchise anyway, being able to use its criminal set-ups for anything from fancy ballrooms to brightly lit casinos to deathtrap dungeons, outer space and moving centuries into the future does allow whole new sets of visuals. Sky domes which change from day to night, flying cars on highways which are three hundred sixty degree tubes, space suits seemingly made of rubber and getting into things on the moon, and so on. That is all here even in this pilot. While Lupin is no stranger to gadgets and oddball locales, this is on a level and would have provided some swell science fiction imagination images to kids at home growing up.
As an experiment or attempt to do something different with the universe, rather than repeating itself, I feel Lupin VIII is at least interesting “What if…?” viewing in passing. Especially if one already has completed a few other versions of the characters and seen how their activities generally play out.
While Lupin VIII ran into trouble with the Maurice Leblanc estate over name licensing issues and was shut down due to their asking for beyond what the internal production group was willing to pay, its exploratory efforts I do not think were for nothing.
The pink jacket era Lupin III Part III, what would actually become the next television series, started its fifty episode run in 1984 and has its own radical set of physical and fashion resigns compared to prior works. I do not think it is unreasonable to think that at least some of the production considerations made during the short lived Lupin VIII project made for an environment where there was an easier time in pushing visual alterations though the Part III doors, with its more freewheeling animation styles and 80’s flavors.
So the Lupin VIII space program failed to launch, and while I have the benefit of over twenty years of additional time and series entries since it was supposed to, I can not say I am too terribly broken up over it. It is an intriguing little novelty for the duration of the episode which was completed (it has everything but voice acting). That said, I feel the space private investigations for an entire show may have risked burning out too fast. There is not necessarily as much creative wiggle room if the Lupin gang need to be the good guys most the time, and crashing others well thought plans, than when they get to operate in their more grey criminal (but at times for greater good) zone and do it themselves.
Which is a bit of a strange meta takeaway, for a production halted due to legal licensing concerns, to return to making more Lupin III without the consent of a foreign estate.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.