There’s a reason they keep bringing in Takashi Yamazaki to write and direct 3D re-imaginings of beloved Japanese franchises. From Stand By Me Doraemon to Dragon Quest Your Story, Yamazaki’s work isn’t content with merely appealing to nostalgia; he forces the audience to grapple with their perception of the franchise in the modern day. Lupin III THE FIRST‘s plot isn’t nearly as meta as his previous work, but it still feels fresh and exciting to watch. This is a film that you can feel comfortable showing to anyone with a passing familiarity with Lupin III.
The most interesting thing about Lupin III THE FIRST is how it plays with its setting. The series has always had a rather nebulous setting, given that Monkey Punch conceived it in the first place as a contemporary spin on Maurice Leblanc‘s stories about Arsène Lupin from the early 1900s. Perhaps because the very foundation of the series is about adapting to the times, the core appeal doesn’t change even when the setting is updated to the modern day. For example, the Lupin the Third: Part 5 TV anime shows Lupin grappling with social media and other modern technologies, but otherwise he’s up to his old tricks.
Lupin III THE FIRST could have contented itself with transplanting the characters to modern-day France and worked just fine as a modern reinterpretation, but instead it plays a little more with the fuzziness of the setting. Although the plot itself isn’t particularly new or original for this franchise, it’s hard to pin down when exactly this film is set, and that leads into some of the story’s most memorable moments. Even a setting as loose as Lupin III‘s is capable of birthing stories that can make the audience question what’s possible within this world.
The story starts out in typical Lupin III fashion. There’s a treasure Lupin wants to steal for his own satisfaction, but he’s competing against a group of villains with more sinister motives in mind. He befriends a woman named Leticia, who turns out to have a personal connection to the treasure, and attempts to thwart a plot with world-changing implications. Besides the typical Lupin III plot beats (Zenigata is still chasing after Lupin, and Fujiko is both a friend and a rival thief, for instance), the film takes on the feel of an Indiana Jones adventure, complete with a plot about punching Nazis and exploring ruins filled with traps and trials.
Even as this film indulges in familiar scenes and imagery, there are still some surprises to be had here and there as the scope of its story expands. Unfortunately, the most interesting ideas are given scarce explanation in the film’s 90 minute run time, so it functions best as a simple popcorn action movie. Still, I believe that the unexplained elements that lie outside the expected parameters of a Lupin III story is what’s necessary to keep the pulse of this franchise alive, even after the passing of its original creator.
The story could have been absolute rubbish, though, and Lupin III THE FIRST would still have been a worthwhile watch. Right from when the very first trailer dropped, the quality of the 3D animation has been blowing minds. Not only are the models detailed and accurate, they also move around with all the vibrant cartoon energy that the 2D animated versions of Lupin III had in their best moments. The action is well-paced and choreographed, and there are some absolutely lavish set pieces for animation fans to admire. The film works best depicting airplane dogfights and other scenes depicting large machinery, where it can really strut its stuff as a full 3D film. You won’t get an experience quite like this from watching the 2D anime, and this film wants you to know that.
I can’t help but have a minor problem with some of the new character designs, though. Lupin and the other familiar faces look fine, but some of the film’s original characters just don’t look like they belong in the same world. There’s one character particularly guilty of this, and for various design and narrative-related reasons, their mere presence momentarily took me out of the film. On the other hand, Leticia jives well with the rest of the cast, and her chemistry with Lupin was compelling. I didn’t expect to be so charmed by a throwaway heroine.
Overall, the original elements of this film are a mixed bag. It’s not as bold or as provocative as some of Yamazaki’s other work, which can be seen as both a positive or a negative thing. (I personally wasn’t a fan of Dragon Quest Your Story.) It’s mostly a traditional adventure with some off-beat elements here and there. The good thing is that Lupin III THE FIRST is a rather accessible gateway to the franchise. It’s not as dark or as violent as other interpretations of the franchise can get, so it functions well enough as a family friendly action-adventure film. There are some indications that this is not quite the Lupin III you may have grown up with, but overall I had a feeling of relief watching this film, knowing that this series is in safe hands. I think Monkey Punch would have been a fan.