There are only a few characters in pop culture who have managed to survive seismic shifts in technology. The James Bond movies are increasingly about 007’s irrelevance as a firmly analog dinosaur in the world of modern espionage. Batman stories often become about Bruce Wayne’s access to cool gadgets, rather than the character himself.
Arsène Lupin III, star of the long-running Lupin III anime franchise, has remained relevant for a different reason: heists are extremely cool, no matter what you use to pull them off.
Created in 1967 by manga artist Monkey Punch aka Kazuhiko Katō, Arsène Lupin III is a gentleman thief, ostensibly the grandson of Maurice Leblanc’s character of the same name. He’s also a master tactician, a goofy criminal, and a relentless horndog, to the point where he occasionally resembles a howling wolf from Looney Tunes. Joining him are the scruffy, taciturn marksman Daisuke Jigen and genteel swordsman Goemon Ishikawa XIII. Rounding out the cast are Inspector Zenigata, the cop trying to catch Lupin, and Fujiko Mine, Lupin’s on-again, off-again girlfriend who frequently betrays him in the middle of a job and the only Lupin character to be the subject of her own show, 2012’s A Woman Called Fujiko Mine.
Lupin III’s plot engine runs almost entirely on the kinetic energy of these archetypes, which is why the tone of the series has been able to vary wildly over the past 50 years. Watch any given Lupin property and you might find the thief and his crew trick an aging Nazi into revealing the location of Hitler’s buried treasure (Part II) or Lupin acting as a noble avenger, going out of his way to save a princess (The Castle of Cagliostro, the first feature-length film directed by Hayao Miyazaki).
Lupin III Part V, which began airing on Japan’s NTV on April 4 and is currently available to stream on Crunchyroll, succeeds largely by leaning into Lupin’s supposed irrelevance. Part V takes place in the present, which is to say that Lupin has to deal with an explosion of technological tools at his disposal.
In the first arc of Part V, Lupin targets Marco Polo, a dark web marketplace for drug and arms dealing and very well-named Silk Road parody. Marco Polo is run by Chuck Glay, a man introduced in a polo shirt and flashy sunglasses, sitting on a beach chair on a yacht, holding a tablet, and smirking as he asks the beautiful women surrounding him: “Do you know what the deep web is?”
This sets a high bar for Glay as an intolerable nerd mastermind with a Miami Vice complex, but he more than lives up to it: His criminal syndicate operates primarily out of a group text. When he threatens to slowly drown one of Lupin’s teammates in a locked room, it’s because he once saw the technique used in a movie and wanted to try it out.
That teammate is Ami, a young girl who has been cybernetically enhanced so she can, essentially, talk to the internet — an ability she uses to drain all of the cryptocurrency from Glay’s accounts, devastating the finances of Marco Polo. Though it’s less thrilling than a typical heist (in one scene from The Castle of Cagliostro, Lupin literally throws armfuls of money out of a car), there’s something deeply satisfying about how easy it is for Lupin to totally destroy a smarmy crypto guy.
It’s a little scary, too; characters gain and lose huge sums of money, represented solely by abstracted numbers on a tablet. Ami frequently uses augmented reality to solve problems that could have been whole episodes of an older show, like whether specific plants are edible. Without spoiling other plot details, it’s delightful to see all of the things she can do with what are essentially high-quality Instagram filters.
When Glay discovers that Lupin has stolen all of his hard-earned criminal cryptocurrency, he finds a devious way to retaliate: he makes Lupin go viral. Glay’s meme, the “Lupin game,” has one simple rule: to find Lupin and take photos of him. Gleeful teens take selfies with Lupin (using their selfie sticks) at the airport, while legions of observers use a Twitch-like livestream to comment on where Lupin might be and where he might be going, breaking down his choices with all the intellectual grace and wit of a Westworld forum.
Over one hundred million people start playing the Lupin game, and variations on Lupin and “Lupin game” top the trending charts on the show’s version of Twitter. In theory, the lack of privacy and suffocating attention should make it functionally impossible for Lupin to operate under the radar.
But Lupin’s response is brilliant, and speaks to how effectively the series uses technology for comedy: He ruins the meme by aggressively posting cheesy photos of himself and trying to become an influencer. Like a corporate Twitter account pouncing on a new meme, or your dad texting Cheezburger photos, the thrill of participating begins to lose its luster.
And after traveling to a country where his nemesis Inspector Zenigata doesn’t have the jurisdiction to arrest him, Lupin is free to ham it up and begin posting constantly: He starts a newsletter to keep people up to date on his whereabouts; obnoxious TV hosts do broad, overproduced segments about him. Eventually, we see two guys hanging out outside a gas station complaining about how the Lupin game is played out.
Quick reversals, fantastical schemes, and quickly burnt-out memes are the ways Lupin III Part V has its hero use his considerable technological tools, simultaneously for comedic and plot effect. (The livestream of assassins trying to kill Lupin continues for several episodes, allowing the show to comment on the action even while it’s happening.) Even the silliest aspects of Part V’s approach to technology work within the show’s world, still in service to the characters’ interests after half a century: In the gorgeous, softly lit opening title sequence, Lupin hacks into a satellite so he can look at boobs from space.
The first episode of Lupin III Part V opens with two people reading what is essentially Lupin’s Wikipedia page, supplemented with clips from other Lupin series — Lupin in his red jacket from Part II running away from Zenigata; Lupin in his green jacket saving the princess from the Castle of Cagliostro; Lupin in his pink jacket from Part III trying (and failing) to use a jetpack — all while commenting on the ambiguous, slippery quality of his legend.
Part V establishes Lupin as a myth, a character flexible and broad enough to contain a dizzying array of stories without needing “continuity.” Arsène Lupin III has been around for 50 years. If even dumb jokes on the internet can serve as fuel for the sort of plots Lupin occupies, maybe he’ll be around for 50 more.
Eric Thurm is the founder, host, and overall doofus behind Drunk Education, which started as a party at his house that several people had to be tricked into attending. He is also a writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club, and other publications, and the author of a book on board games forthcoming from NYU Press in 2019.