Following my exploration of Cat’s Eye on Amazon Prime I thought it would be interesting to mount a deeper expedition into Amazon’s vaults and discover more retro anime for people in a reflective, throwback mood – fortunately something turned up in short order this time because recently made available on a basic Prime subscription in just the last couple of months is none other than cartoon classic Lupin III, Part 2.
Lupin III surely needs no introduction. The most famous creation of the late Kazuhiko “Monkey Punch” Kato, the irrepressible huckster and putative grandson of Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman thief Arsene Lupin who not only steals gold and jewels but copyrights too (the Leblanc estate never really should have been so hostile to Lupin III, what with Leblanc’s own blatant appropriation of “Herlock Sholmes”), debuted over fifty years ago in 1967 and yet he’s still going strong today. Indeed, back in September we here at the UK Anime Network let you know that a new Lupin III 3D CGI movie will be coming out soon too. Really, by this stage the show ought to be renamed to Lupin VI! Monkey Punch may have sadly passed away last year but he can go to eternity with the satisfaction that he’s achieved immortality through one of anime and manga’s evergreen institutions.
Of course, for any series that’s been running nearly continuously for more than half a century there’s a huge volume of content in which you can become immersed, and huge variation within that content as each subsequent revival, sequel and iteration mutates a little more away from the long-buried original seed. There are literally dozens of different Lupin III titles, incorporating not just manga and anime but theatrical films (including live-action ones), OVAs and one-off television specials too. Monkey Punch’s manga is infamous for being a lot grittier and darker than the more mass-market animated versions (I’ve not read much of the manga but I do distinctly remember one chapter where Lupin takes on as a sidekick a bored heiress struggling to find excitement in life and escape her gilded cage; among other things, the girl outright murders someone only “to make sure that I’ll never have to go to Heaven”) but even within the anime themselves there can be bizarre discrepancies. Most people in English-speaking territories are introduced to Lupin III via his Hayao Miyazaki connection in the movie The Castle of Cagliostro, but until a few years ago the only other Lupin III movie dubbed into English was The Secret of Mamo, and moving from Cagliostro’s fairytale whimsy to Mamo’s firing a giant skyscraper-sized brain directly into the Sun is a speed-shift that will smash your gearbox!
The Lupin III, Part 2 anime is a version of Lupin III that is still relatively close to the source. Originally broadcast between 1977-1980 over four seasons, the anime follows up from the first anime adaptation of 1971-2 and it was produced concurrently with the publication of Monkey Punch’s own sequel manga, Lupin III: World’s Most Wanted. A number of episodes of the anime are direct adaptations of manga chapters (the manga did have a partial release in English from Tokyopop, but the translation has been out of print for well over a decade so you’re highly unlikely to find many copies out in the wild these days). Lupin III, Part 2 is part of what’s often referred to as Lupin III’s “Red Jacket” period (yes, the franchise has been running so long it literally has its own epochs!) which aficionados consider to be the character’s Golden Age. To stand out as a highlight in 54 years of material is a bold claim – does it bear up today or by tricking us into watching with some fancy blurb has Lupin just scored his latest swindle?
To be honest, it’s a question that’s difficult to answer because much like in my review of Cat’s Eye it’s hard to make a meaningfully objective review of a series that is not only more than forty years old and completely different in scope and technology than any frame of reference that we have today but as much itself a fact of history.
One thing to bear in mind is that Amazon Prime isn’t offering the entirety of Lupin III, Part 2 – 155 episodes of the anime were produced between 1977-1980 but only 79 (seasons one, two and the first half of three) are being made available for streaming as this is a re-release of the English-dubbed version that Geneon Entertainment’s troubled US division produced before its license expired in 2007. Unfortunately the problem of shoddy Amazon curation that I've mentioned in other reviews does rear its ugly head once - the episode "Lair of the Land-Shark" is listed but has the incorrect episode uploaded, because what actually plays when you select it is a repeat of an earlier episode "Crude Reproduction, Perfect Frame". At the time of writing this had still not been fixed.
Two more episodes of Lupin III, Part 2 received English dubs, the final pair of episodes received a standalone release on videotape as "Lupin III's Greatest Capers" back in the 1980s, but they are not part of the Amazon Prime collection. Lupin’s 1980s English voice actor Bob Bergen has his fans but personally I do prefer the version we’re getting here – this edition is voiced by Tony Oliver, who continues to be the modern English voice of Lupin today. Oliver’s cheeky attitude always just seemed more inherently fitting for the role – Lupin’s very design with lanky limbs and round, close-cropped head with long face-framing sideburns looks monkeyish (he even clambers over a jeep doing a chimp routine at one point) and Monkey Punch himself did originally describe Lupin as a “carefree” character. The dub script also calls attention to it, as Lupin’s intermittent girlfriend Fujiko sneers in one episode that she’d never have sex with Lupin “because I don’t want my children looking like Curious George”. I’ve always felt somewhat baffled that the Japanese tend to misapprehend their own character and view Lupin as a grizzled, tough battler – the longest-reigning Japanese voice actor for Lupin was Yasuo Yamada, who played the role until his death in 1995; but I was astonished to learn in one of Johnathan Clements’ commentaries for The Castle of Cagliostro that Yamada was also the Japanese voice of Clint Eastwood! The two personalities really don’t fit!
The fact that this is the English-language production of Lupin III, Part 2 may put off purists but other than inserted shots which overlay English versions of the title cards and episode names there aren’t really much in the way of egregious cuts or censoring of the Japanese edition that I can notice. The English episode names are often significantly different from the Japanese ones but to be quite honest I much prefer the English ones which are often snappier and punnier - for instance “The Hidden Gold of Genghis Khan” becomes here the gang launching a “Khan Job” while “Her Majesty’s Bumbling Inspectors” evolves into the jollier jape of “Crownin’ Around”. One early episode dealing with Zee Nahzees, “To Be or Nazi Be”, which involves Lupin pretending to be Hitler to jog the memory of a senile ex-Gestapo officer on where he buried the Third Reich’s gold back in 1945, looks like it’s missing but it hasn’t been deleted, just moved from its original position as episode three to the final episode of season one as episode twenty-six, I assume because Amazon thought that going into the goose-stepping and swastikas nearly straight away was a bit too soon for a 0-60 speed test as far as tonal escalation went. (Editor's Note: The placement of "To Be or Nazi Be" in the episode order reflects its position in Geneon's original 2000s DVD series of Lupin III, Part 2. The episode was never broadcast on Adult Swim and was moved onto a follow-up disc when released on video).
The premise of that episode also establishes that there’s an odd mix to the content of Lupin III, Part 2. The plots of each episode are definitely towards the goofier end of the scale – the first episode includes Lupin’s gang reforming on board a luxury liner that one of their old enemies, reconstructed into a robot body, has built exclusively for the purpose of killing them in diabolical traps including (but not limited to) an evil dentist and a crocodile-infested swimming pool. Just in case you were thinking that was a one-off, they follow it up in the second episode with something that even Carmen Sandiego would blanche at and steal Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Christ the Redeemer (Yes, the entire statue. Yes, I know it’s a hundred feet tall). Part of Lupin’s plan for heisting the Crown Jewels incorporates his triggerman Jigen shooting at the hands on the Houses of Parliament’s clock face (with some weird astronomy telescope-M16 setup which I’m sure would have Golgo 13 writing an angry letter to the Radio Times about television inaccuracy) to push them up to noon and make Big Ben bong early. One episode in the third season involves Lupin competing in the Thieves’ Olympics, the Purloin-a-Palooza Invitational; another has the gang dress up like they're on a Journey to the West and uses them as chess pieces in a game played by giant oni demons. There really are times when you’d think Lupin III, Part 2 was an honest-to-goodness kid’s show, in particular the English logo’s chunky bubble font making it look like a Saturday morning title or occasions when Goemon uses his samurai sword only to harmlessly and bloodlessly cut up guards’ clothes so they run off embarrassed at being seen in their boxers. Tee-hee, so silly!
Then again, there are other times when you realise why this English version of Lupin III, Part 2 was first broadcast late at night on Adult Swim and not during the day on Cartoon Network. The violence may be safe in some episodes but it can suddenly get sharp in others – characters can be straight-up killed from time to time, even in the first episode where those crocodiles actually eat swimmers, and in another episode some characters are subjected to prolonged electrocution torture with plenty of unpleasant screaming that aren’t just cartoony zaps. Fujiko’s status as a femme fatale is definitely emphasised – even if she never gets naked she still shows off her cleavage, the show is open about the force of her sexuality and what Lupin wants from her too - like where he woos her with the poem: "Roses are red / and gum's periodontal / let's cut the to chase / and get horizontal!". The relatively lack of nudity might be out of step with some of the more modern Lupin adventures, but this was still television in the Seventies, there is some restraint! Although there is actually one short flash of nudity when a damsel's blouse is torn in the episode "Return of the X Factor", that's only scant seconds in the entire series. In any case, there's nothing even remotely on the scale of sexual threat in more recent movies like Jigen's Gravestone - which involves Fujiko being molested by a robotic gimp - so Lupin III, Part 2 remains quite accessible. The script is not blue – there is fairly regular cursing but it stays at a moderate level on the tier of "bitches" and "bastards" rather than "f**ks" and "s**ts", so the characters aren’t dropping a B-52’s payload of gratuitous F-bombs like a Nineties Manga Entertainment dub – but it does show awareness of sex’n’violence. Lupin III, Part 2 is not all-ages despite first appearances, but it’s not crassly adult either – I think that 13+ “T for Teen” rating that Amazon Prime has given the content is actually pretty reasonable and balanced, not being patronisingly twee but not being embarrassingly edgy either.
That last point also emphasises why Lupin III, Part 2 is a success. Watching this, I can well understand why Lupin III would come to grow into such a franchise titan and anime institution in the following decades. It may not have the most sophisticated animation of all Japan, but that still comes with plenty of pop-art kitsch (the opening sequence for the second season is a personal highlight); the capers may be completely unrealistic but that makes them cheeky, impish and above all, playful. This is assisted by a good English dub: again, purists may dislike the script for being inauthentic (at the very least, references are updated: in one episode Jigen jokes about flogging tat on eBay, a line that definitely wasn't written in 1978) but it is lively, zippy and spicily peppered with plenty of wisecracks. The main cast play with conviction while the extras on their globetrotting escapades to exotic locales happily ham it up with all manner of ‘Allo ‘Allo accents. Even if Amazon Prime are not offering the complete collection, 79 episodes is still cumulatively over 26 hours of TV and is still a lot to tuck into - much like Cat’s Eye, other than a small smattering of two-parters all of the adventures are self-contained and episodic so you can freely dip in and out forward and backward across all three available seasons without having to reserve too much brainpower worrying about storylines or continuity, making it a relaxing watch where the appeal is whatever tickles your fancy. There’s a lot of Lupin III content on Amazon Prime that’s locked out from view either thanks to regional restrictions or the Funimation Now sub-subscription (including the more modern Part 4 and Part 5 television series and several of the movies) but I am happy with this – allowing for the limitations of animation four decades ago Lupin III, Part 2 has lots of entertainment to offer.