If there’s one thing we need at the end of the horrible and interminable year that is 2020, it’s a rip-snorting, globetrotting adventure. Obviously we can’t really do that at the moment, so it’s up to our entertainment to get us there. And get there it does in the case of the CG anime film Lupin III: The First, the latest in the long-running series of capers of international thief with a heart of a precious metal of your choosing, Arsène Lupin III. You don’t need to know anything about the long history of the character and his rogues to enjoy, though; it’s just a fun, fast, Nazi-punching caper to save the world.
Some quick backstory on Lupin III (or Lupin the 3rd, or Lupin the Third if ya nasty). He first appeared in a manga series from creator Monkey Punch (yes, a pen name) in 1967. He’s the grandson of Arsène Lupin, the pulp antihero from French novelist Maurice Leblanc, first appearing in 1905. Lupin III performs daring heists across the world, always with the hapless Interpol detective Zenigata on his heels. Lupin’s cohorts in this are the gunman Jigen and samurai Goemon. The comely superthief Fujiko Mino also shows up most of the time to help and/or steal from Lupin.
It wouldn’t be a Lupin III adventure without these characters, and they’re all here for Lupin III: The First. The story begins in Nazi-occupied France as the brilliant Professor Bresson puts the whereabouts of the fabled Eclipse treasure in a heavily booby-trapped diary. An amulet is its only key, which he entrusts to his family. The Nazis come to steal it, and he and most of the family die in the ensuing chase. The diary also goes missing in the process. Only Bresson’s infant granddaughter survives and Bresson’s rival Lambert, working with the Nazis, takes her and the amulet in.
In the 1960s, the diary resurfaces as the granddaughter, Laetitia, believing herself to be Lambert’s granddaughter, attempts to steal it before its unveiling in a museum showcase. Naturally, Arsène Lupin III wants to steal it too—the one item his grandfather could never get. As Laetitia and Lupin vie for the diary, the truth of Lambert’s tangling with the Nazis comes to a head, and the vile Gerard wishes to use the Eclipse treasure to rebuild the Third Reich.
So we’ve got some real James Bond-meets-Indiana Jones stuff going on here and it’s just so much fun. Lupin is daring and canny while also kind of a lucky dope who relies on his friends to save his bacon. While the sidekicks don’t get a ton to do, it’s Lupin’s (surprisingly chaste given the source material) flirtation and rivalry with Laetitia that makes for the most engaging interpersonal aspects of the story, as does the horrible relationship between Laetitia and her “grandfather,” who seems to have some affection for her despite telling her repeatedly she’s not good for anything except getting the diary. It’s tough to watch, but to the movie’s credit, it’s a complex relationship that doesn’t have an easy answer.
The animation for this is is nothing short of breathtaking. Anime has had a tough time reconciling the expected style of its animation (meaning the manga/2D aesthetic) with the need and ease for computer graphics as a medium. Some recent anime in CG just looks terrible. This, however, keeps the cartoony character designs perfectly intact and makes the settings and textures as realistic as possible. This feels like Spielberg’s Tintin movie without the motion capture. It’s astonishing how gorgeous Lupin III: The First is.
I found myself lost in the massive animated world of ’60s Europe; reveling in the high-flying exploits, and hoping against hope we get more movies in this new version of Lupin and company. It’s one of the best adventure films in years, animated or otherwise.
4.5 out of 5