Film

The Priceless Canvas Called Fujiko Mine

 

When Fujiko Mine first stepped onto the scene in Lupin III’s ‘Mystery Woman’, she knocked the master thief on his ass. She used her wits to best his plans, see through his disguises and utilized her ample feminine virtues to charm the arrogant womanizer into giving her everything she wanted. To celebrate the anniversary of Monkey Punch’s manga, ‘Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’ reimagines and updates the classic from her violent, sexy perspective, adding life to the series in ways unseen since the original hand drawn pages. Like the machine gun blonde beauty, the show is a healthy, vibrant form on a 40 year old body.

Cease what you are doing and gaze at me. Stop everything save for the throwing of your heart.

Much has happened in the decades since Lupin was first put into print and after hundreds of stories, numerous series and dozens of theatrical films, our rogue’s red coat was starting to fray at the hem. Many of Lupin’s adventures featured the unabashed nudity found in M. Punch’s work but few could capture its tawdry, dirty sexuality and Lupin’s borderline sexual predator proclivities. Part of that can be chalked up to the changing of The Times. What was passable in the seventies wasn’t in the nineties and is even more dangerous now. So the tiger was defanged, and turned into a kitten batting at string. The solution was to come at it from a different angle.

Fujiko is a stellar choice. The first Lupin release to be headed by a woman, director Sayo Yamamoto’s sophomore burlesque ran a colorful brush down the curves of our Lady Looter’s brash and confident canvas to paint the most sensual and feminine character portrait this side of Leiji Matsumoto. Ms. Mine will think nothing of disrobing to seduce a weak man or use her lips to poison a strong one.

In The Woman Called Fujiko, sex is free and alive one moment and manipulative and depraved in the next. There’s a frank openness here, a striking layer of honesty under a mound of dirt that doesn’t often pull its punches. Check out the sexually charged, surprisingly dark episode ‘Prison of Love’ to see how far this shows willing to go and what it’s willing to do to get there.

Reimagining meant reintroduction. By acting as the central force that brings the cunning Lupin together with the stoic gunslinger Daisuke Jigen and the honorable samurai Goemon Ishikawa as they elude Interpol’s Inspector Zenigata, Fujiko is witness to the relationships that developed between each and the versatility of content their archetypes bring to the table. Equally fascinating is the ways in which their individual personalities have been expanded out. I mean crap, Zenigata’s no longer the defacto heel but a smart, slightly bent cop more obsessed with capturing Lupin than administering justice.

From the severe shadows to thick lined pencilwork, the entire production is rendered with stylistic flair that impossibly captures the original illustrative panel work. The compositions are fresh and new while realizing the slick and lurid voice that’s been missing from the series since its hand drawn pages. I’m not sure if it’s the shading lines or the intentional choppy frames or the occasional hyper accentuated details but the animations look like they fell out of a worm hole from the nineteen seventies. This is where I say it’s probably all those elements. It’s beautiful and sketchy and harsh and clean and abstract. The art design goes a long way to communicating the twisted fantasy version of real life in which it’s set but no ordinary people exist.

LUPIN THE THIRD- THE WOMAN CALLED FUJIKO MINEIt’s a fantasy birthed from European espionage films and French cartoons. Its aesthetic texturing allows the thirteen episodes to wildly differ from one to the next while retaining an integrity of tone. It easily jumps from Cold War paranoia to eastern mysticism to fine arts to science fiction to political drama without dropping a beat. It’s got lost treasure and megalomaniacal villainy and doped-up cults and masked phantoms and a Che Guevara stand-in. All that’s missing are the space westerns.

Yamamoto’s direction is top notch. Aside from a few moments that seem sloppy in comparison, the imagery always properly communicates the action and dramatizes the visual cues. It’s Cowboy Bebop via Fooly Cooly. It’s a bombastic and electric visual expression that only anime has ever achieved and that chaos cinema can aspire to but will never realize.

It’s not surprising given a legacy so long reaching that even Bebop, inarguably the pinnacle of human creation, was more than a little influenced by it. That Bebop’s creative backbone, Shinichiro Watanabe, is credited as Music Producer is the universe clearing its debts. Lupin’s music is great: it’s varied, appropriate for the context and playfully composed. Watanabe is joined by Takeshi Koike as character designer and head animator, whose Redline is a sensory Big Bang. The shows got chops and I’m not talking about the ones tacked onto Senor Tres’ face.

If there’s anything disappointing about The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, it’s in the episodes that bookend its progression. While never bad, the first ventures into the absurd when Lupin rides a giant narcotics statue strapped to rockets. The progression also chunks up in the final third when it focuses its narrative on a central thread and every episode starts blurring into the next, expecting you to remember specific details from the beginning that seemed innocuous at the time. As a friend observed, it changes from being a show into a film. But that sweet spot in the middle? So so good.

But it deserves credit for how it distills her relationship with the men in her life to their basic compounds. The bandit looking to steal her, the sharpshooter trying to keep her at arm’s length, the samurai who wants to earn her and the inspector who thinks he already has. The series also introduces the young Oscar as Zenigata’s loyal lieutenant. He doesn’t perfectly blend into the cast, but Oscar’s well defined and his animosity towards our heroine properly balances the ensembles dynamic. The Lupin/Fujiko chemistry is easily the most interesting of the lot; a master thief who steals for the thrill and the Femme Fatale who would gladly drape herself in nothing but jewels. One is the pleasure of getting, the other the pleasure of having.

Little boy there is nothing more I can steal from you. You’ve long been an empty shell, just as I have.

Though men dominate the cast, Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is ultimately a story about women through a woman’s eyes. It knows that they can be beautiful, they can be ugly, they can be caring and hateful. Clad in gold, guns and heels Fujiko Mine is a woman who knows who she is and what she wants and won’t let Man, Woman or God keep her from it.

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