For more than 50 years, one sticky-fingered fella has ruled the roost when it comes to anime thievery. Monkey Punch's Lupin III pretty much defines what it means to be a thief in the world of animation, to the point that cartoons from all over the world reference him on a regular basis.
But the references come in more forms than just loud sport jackets and dueling on clock faces: Lupin's MO has been copied and standardized all across the anime world. And it's not just because of him — his granddad, Lupin I, is equally popular in Japan. Between them, they've defined what it means to be a "phantom thief" in the world of anime. Since then, more anime series over the years have played with and expanded on these tropes, resulting in a character type beloved in all genres from shonen to magical girl.
So what is a "phantom thief"? Nowadays we may equate the name with capes and a magician aesthetic (thanks to some characters we'll be mentioning later on), but overall it refers to a thief who vanishes like a phantom: gone before you even know they were there. But, as with any trope or character type, there's a little more to them than simply where the name comes from.
And to really get down to what makes a Phantom Thief, we have to first look past Lupin III to his inspiration: his canonical grandpa, Arséne Lupin.
First appearing in print in 1905, Maurice Leblanc's gentleman thief was an instant hit in his home country of France. A gentleman and romantic who spent equal time solving and committing crimes, he eventually became popular in Japan—so popular, in fact, that he continues to show up in other anime and games as himself!
Many of Lupin III's tricks and traits, unsurprisingly, come from the original Lupin. Of course, a more modern setting means enhancements like GPS, computers, and the like. But regardless of era or setting or genre, there are a few elements that are part and parcel of a good phantom thief in anime, and for which we have the family Lupin to thank.
At the top of the list, if only because of how common it's become, is The Calling Card. You know the one. From Lupin to Saint Tail and everywhere in between, there's the common theme of calling ahead to let the victims know they're about to be robbed. It's only polite, after all!
The phantom thief's calling card is equal parts old-school manners, teasing, and bragging. The calling card is a very old-fashioned conceit: the way you'd let people know you were coming by before you could just text ahead. But instead of announcing a visit, this was more like a taunt. "I'm going to steal this thing, and even though you know exactly where and when it's going to happen, you still won't be able to stop me." Bonus points for sending a card for something seemingly impossible... like the Statue of Liberty.
Though many of anime's phantom thieves use calling cards, Lupin III is by far the most famous for it — so much so that it's been used as a way to announce collaborations between the shows and businesses, and a Lupin cosplayer made a splash this past Otakon by leaving his own card!
Speaking of etiquette, phantom thieves tend to have a very hard line when it comes to how they conduct themselves. Sure, they're committing actual literal crimes, but they're going to be very proper about it. That means dressing well, being well spoken, and fighting classy rather than fighting dirty (with a few improvised weapons here and there, though). And when it comes to class and style, Kaito Kid of Case Closed and his own self-named series knows where it's at—he even takes a few cues from the original Lupin!
Not every phantom thief has the same "hard lines" when it comes to what they will and won't do, though. For example, Lupin III will absolutely use a gun—his trusty Walther P38—but he'll never shoot a woman. (Well, hardly ever... there was that one time in Angel Tactics, but we don't talk about that.) Even so, these characters have at least some moral code, even if it varies from person to person.
And that's because these characters are, by and large, not evil people—they tend to be antiheroes at worst. But even the villainous ones are fun villains, and that's because that's what this is all about for these thieves: fun and adventure. That's not to say our phantom thieves particularly mind having treasure or nice things, but wealth isn't their primary goal. So what is their primary goal?
The challenge. The adventure. Bragging rights. Maybe the original Mona Lisa would look really good over the mantelpiece. Or maybe there's some deeper mystery or story they're pursuing, that we won't understand until all the pieces are in place.
But the most important thing is that phantom thieves are loving life and having fun. I mean, look at this happy dude and tell me he doesn't think his life is the absolute best:
How do your favorite phantom thieves stack up? Can you think of any on par with Lupin? Let us know in the comments!
Kara Dennison is responsible for multiple webcomics, and is half the creative team behind the OEL light novel series Owl's Flower. She blogs at karadennison.com and tweets @RubyCosmos. Her latest book, Black Archive #21 – Heaven Sent, is currently available from Obverse Books.