Of all the iterations of the Japanese character Lupin III — the manga and the live-action films, the multiple TV runs, the animated specials, and the video games — the one that’s spread the furthest and earned the biggest reputation is the 1979 animated movie The Castle of Cagliostro, the first film ever directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki.
It’s true that Cagliostro is the most famous Lupin story because of Miyazaki’s reputation, which eventually helped get the film international distribution, drawing in curious viewers who might otherwise have not heard of Lupin. But it’s just as true that Cagliostro helped earn Miyazaki the early reputation that drew investors to Ghibli. It isn’t just a stellar installment in the ongoing Lupin adventure, it’s a Lupin story so specific and carefully calculated that it helped define the character for decades to come.
In the new movie Lupin III: The First, writer-director Takashi Yamazaki took Miyazaki’s version of the character as an inspiration. Lupin III, grandson of the famous heist artist Arsène Lupin (from Maurice Leblanc’s novels) has always been arrogant and ambitious, but in different writers’ hands, he’s varied widely in how rough-edged and aggressive he is, whether he’s an outright anti-hero or a full-on hero. Lupin III: The First takes him back to Miyazaki’s version, as a thief with a heart of gold. He’s a smirking, swaggering criminal who pretends to be motivated solely by cash and glory, but he’s just as drawn by a chance to help a young woman in distress, or solve an intriguing mystery. In some Lupin stories, the thrill of the crime and the action are the primary appeal, with the characters themselves just filling necessary plot functions. In Lupin III: The First, Lupin is back to being a sweet and reckless charmer who enjoys playing the role of a devil-may-care jerk, but still shows his true colors when it counts.
Lupin III: The First opens in the 1940s in Nazi-occupied France, where a famed archeologist, Professor Bresson, passes along his secret diary just before Nazi soldiers arrive to claim it. The scientist Professor Lambert, representing the Nazi think tank Ahnenerbe, pursues the book, which he believes contains the key to a vast treasure. But he comes away with nothing but Bresson’s seal, which may be the key to opening the elaborate clockwork box that contains the diary. The story jumps forward to the 1960s, where the diary is about to be displayed at a museum, until Lupin, his longtime rival-in-crime Fujiko, and a young woman named Laetitia all try to abscond with it. Soon, they’re all caught up in an international treasure hunt that’s equal parts Raiders of the Lost Ark and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as the diary repeatedly changes hands, and the various players try to figure out how to access it, how to translate it, how to pursue the specific treasure it offers, and then how to use that treasure.
Through all of this, Yamazaki plays a bit with Lupin’s self-mythologizing as a heartless thief, but it’s clear from the early sequence where he saves Laetitia from falling off a building that he’s far more invested in her safety and success than he lets on. Like the hapless Princess Clarisse in Cagliostro, Laetitia is young, impressionable, and determined, but not particularly good at defending herself from the ill-intentioned men controlling her every move. And like Clarisse, she earns Lupin’s sympathy and interest with her helplessness, but also her fragile pride and stubbornness. Laetitia’s dearest dream — to chuck all this world-spanning adventure and go study archeology at Boston University — seems laughably small given where the story eventually goes. But this time around, at least, Lupin has an equally personal goal in mind: he wants to get the diary because as far as he knows, it’s the one prize that eluded his famous grandfather.
Yamazaki could stand to do more with this kind of personal dynamic in his film, which still relies too much on the existence of past Lupin stories (most prominently Cagliostro) to give the characters any weight or appeal they might have. The usual cast is in place — Lupin’s sharpshooter partner Jigen and samurai ally Goemon, plus Fujiko and relentless Interpol detective Zenigata. But the film doesn’t do anything particularly exciting with any of them. Every one of them makes firm decisions that they promptly reverse the second the plot demands it, and they all disappear for long periods so the film can mostly focus on Lupin and Laetitia. Goemon is particularly ill-served: he’s usually a dignified mystery, but here, he drops the dignity to pout and obsess over his sword in a way that seems considerably pettier than his usual samurai-satire sword fetishization. Jigen, meanwhile, largely disappears, except when something needs to be shot or slouched on.
And as a replacement for the usual dynamic between thieves, Laetitia doesn’t have enough to offer. She has a little grit to balance out her wide-eyed damsel-in-distress act, but it almost never does her any good: she’s a patsy, a Hermione Granger whose primary purpose in the story is to be smart and well-read in places where the largely male cast is too smug, reckless, and action-driven to bother with translating ancient languages or interpreting musty old diagrams. In the late 1970s, Clarisse’s meekness and open reliance on Lupin’s half-romantic, half-paternal support didn’t feel particularly out of place — she was as much a McGuffin as a character. But Lupin III: The First foregrounds Laetitia as a main character whose life and freedom are on the line, and then repeatedly robs her of any chance to meaningfully contribute to the story.
That dynamic weighs the film down, but just like Cagliostro before it, the film merrily surges forward whenever the action kicks in. Lupin is still a master of gangly, artful physicality, capable of turning even missteps into successes. His impromptu rooftop leap in Cagliostro remains one of his all-time greatest onscreen moments, but Yamazaki matches it in Lupin III: The First with a laser-trap sequence that’s ridiculous, breathtaking, and designed for the biggest screen possible. There’s plenty of physical action in the film, often on the ridiculously cartoony side, but still utterly winning. This isn’t one of Lupin’s more cerebral adventures, but it’s certainly one of his more visually arresting.
The visuals themselves are likely to be the biggest point of contention for longtime Lupin fans. Audiences who grew up on Cagliostro and bootlegged Lupin OVAs may find the character’s first wholly CGI adventure a little slick and soulless compared to hand-drawn art. Younger fans who grew up alongside the Pixar movies will be so used to this visual language — the rubbery poreless faces with their surprising depths of color, the eye-popping 3D effect of shadows rounding the bodies and giving them depth — that it won’t be a tripping point at all. And from the earliest manga days, Lupin and his squad have always been caricatured and cartoony. They fit into this hypersaturated landscape as well as any other characters originally designed in 2D.
Viewers will similarly have to decide whether Yamazaki’s more conscious, blatant Cagliostro references — like an ending chase scene that reminds fans of these characters’ eternal, unchanging nature — feel more like loving homage, or an upstart aping the master. The answer to that question will certainly affect whether they greet Lupin III: The First as a welcome new retooling for an ever-mutating franchise, or something else entirely. But while the newest film in the series may never replace Castle of Cagliostro, they make a fine double feature. Lupin has worn a lot of different faces over the last 50 years, but these two films in particular show him as the same man: reckless, dashing, often chivalrous, often ridiculous, and above all, always driven to succeed at whatever goal he sets for himself — even if that goal changes 20 times during a given adventure.
The Castle of Cagliostro is streaming on Netflix, and is available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms. Lupin III: The First will release on VOD platforms on December 15, and on home video on January 12.