Lupin III: Daisuke Jigen's Gravestone
Synopsis: While stealing a valuable gem from the nation of East Doroa, which has been in conflict with its neighbor West Doroa, Lupin and Jigen are shot at by a skilled assassin. They discover that the the sniper and polymath Jael Okuzaki, who creates graves for his victims before the fact, has targeted Jigen. And this assassin has never once failed to take out his target. Can Lupin and Jigen figure out why Jigen's been targeted and remove him from the cross hairs? And why is Fujiko Mine mixed up in this? This adventure will see Lupin and Jigen test the limits of their partnership as they run, shoot, and maneuver for their lives.
We might be in a new golden age for the Lupin III franchise.
Consider the wave of terrifyingly pathetic, simplistic, and limp Lupin III TV specials from the past, oh, let's say ten years. Predictable, one-note, sloughs with all the personality of a dry bowl of oatmeal. We have Lupin taking on a pack of all-female terrorists, time traveling, chasing a magic lamp, crossing over with Detective Conan (twice, counting a recent theatrical film), fighting ninjas (and their dogs), and going through the motions to try to recreate Castle of Cagliostro, with nothing but being wrist-deep in baby crap as a result. And basically the premises I just described are actually more interesting than the specials themselves. It's become increasingly embarrassing to even admit you've watched the new specials. They make the worst episodes of the second TV series seem like Plot of the Fuma Clan.
When Sayo Yamamoto (Michiko and Hatchin) and witer Mari Okada helmed a new Lupin III television series, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, in 2012, however, it was like some higher power pierced the shroud of darkness that had descended onto the franchise and restored it to its proper glory. A 13-episode character-driven prequel to the Lupin franchise, this new series brought back the edgier, biting, cynical coolness and unforgiving world that Monkey Punch himself wrote (albeit with more of a zany twist) in the original Lupin III manga. And to help drive the point home, they recruited phenom Takeshi Koike (Redline) to design the characters and head up the animation in the show, giving the characters vivid looks and motions. It was an absolute delight from start to finish.
Yamamoto and Okada took us to a unspecified time and many unspecified places. Names and time period changed to protect the innocent, you see (though few people in the show could really be considered innocent). There was an expy for Cuba and the Cuban Missile Crisis. A take on psychedelic cults using hallucinogens. Fujiko as a governess for a prominent family like The Sound Of Music, tangling with a phantom of an opera house, finding herself in the midst of a shoujo-ai girls academy story. And meanwhile a disturbing reoccurring story involving a corrupt pharmaceutical company and what we're led to believe is Fujiko's past. At the end, it's established that Fujiko just is who she is, and Lupin has begun his relationship with her and begrudging friendship with Jigen.
This movie, split into two parts (but here reviewed as one seamless feature), obviously continues the continuity of that series. This time Takeshi Koike is at the helm as both the director, character designer, and animation director, with Yuuya Takahashi writing. It's short in its entirety, running at just over 50 minutes, making it one of the shortest Lupin III features in decades. And while not as thematically bold and daring as the Fujiko TV series, it's every bit as risque, violent, and irreverent. It's a gorgeous little treat that makes me believe that we're seeing a Renaissance for the Lupin franchise.
In this feature, while Lupin and Jigen teamed up a few times prior, and continue to work together, there's not a lot of camaraderie we come to expect from them as the story begins. Their partnership is still fairly fresh, and Jigen is especially weary to consider Lupin anything other than a temporary ally. After a nearly botched mission to steal a gigantic jewel being sold off to fund a cold war between two sides of a split nation, Jigen finds himself the target of a mysterious sniper with some interesting eccentricities. And Jigen refuses Lupin's help on the grounds that it's basically none of his business, and Jigen likes to play things close to the vest. Lupin doesn't seem to mind so much, but he's the exceptionally curious type and just has to know why Jigen was put in the crosshairs.
Jael Okuzaki is fascinating because these types of hired guns aren't usually the main antagonists in Lupin features very often, or if they are, they have some larger scheme to take control of their bosses' organization or some such hidden ambition. Okuzaki just wants to get his target in as few bullets as he can, get paid, and move onto his next mission. And really, he doesn't need the work. He's obviously some kind of polymath, not just good with guns at both long and short distances, but also has constructed an elaborate kill machine, but with the drill where it is and it's looming form over a naked Fujiko, it's hard not to interpret it a different way. And his ingenious way of assuring he gets his target in the city provide a clever climax. An inventive mind such as his probably doesn't really need the money or even the prestige afforded to him by reputation. He does it because he's exceptionally good at it, so why not? If his clients are a warmongering private sect conducting horrible masked cult meetings, so be it. But they end up secondary to him by the end. After all, it's Okuzaki that's challenging the personal pride and skills of our pilfering protagonists.
And our boys, while they have quite the challenge, and seems outclassed at first, end up doing quite a thorough job dismantling both the people who hired the assassin, and the assassin himself by the end. But between those two positions there's a bit of politics, some gun fights, Lupin and Fujiko rescuing each other, and a few choice surprising revelations about the happenings in East Doroa. And they're all crafted quite beautifully by Koike, from the heart-pounding action scenes to the quieter moments like Jigen walking along a long white wall in the city to get to the final showdown with the gorgeous European backdrop behind him, hat flapping in the wind, errant dust blowing up from the ground. And by the end when the two partners share a cigarette and a laugh, it's obvious they've grown closer, grown to become the close partners we see in the rest of the franchise.
As if to make up for a lack of Goemon or Inspector Zenigata, there is a cameo from an old villain just before the final credits that well-establishes this as part of the Lupin prequel canon and in a place before the proper TV series one. But I'd rather you discover this yourself by watching, because it blew my mind when I saw it, and if you've seen the movie this person was in, you'll recognize him immediately.
As if this all wasn't enough, there's the perfect ending theme for both parts, an ode to smokey, reckless machismo, reminiscent of a Bond film opening theme. I want this song in my anime folder forever. It is a fantastic capper to this fantastic caper.
Discotek will be releasing this feature on Blu-Ray and DVD, having just announced it. It will even have an English dub of its own, and in my opinion, should bring on the old Phuuz cast, with Tony Oliver as Lupin, Richard Epcar as Jigen, and Michelle Ruff as Fujiko. If not, I'd be a little worried, because barring that cast, the English dubs for Lupin properties have a tendency to lack chemistry. But the Japanese cast is excellent, so even if the English version disappoints, I'll buy it and watch it with subtitles, like I did for this review.
Perhaps this movie is intended to lead into the new television series next year. But with neither Yamamoto nor Koike attached, I wonder if they can continue the momentum, and truly hope they can. Lupin III needs this now, while the best TMS can usually do is some pathetic shadow of the second TV series or sad, unnecessary crossovers. I want to see a bit of the old shows, but with an unforgiving approach. Show us Lupin still has teeth, TMS. Otherwise, you might as well carve yourself a head stone.
I can hardly recommend this movie any more if I tried. When Discotek puts this out, try not to trip when you run to give them your money.
- Penguin Truth