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Q: What would beloved classic Lupin III look like if it was remodeled to appeal to children in 2014?
A: A whole hell of a lot like JOKER.
While that’s an easy comparison to make, it should in no way be read as an admonishment of JOKER, based on the award-winning children’s manga Mysterious Joker by Takahashi Hideyasu. It would be difficult to create a series about lovable rogues without drawing comparisons to Monkey Punch’s legendary thief, and thankfully JOKER comes off more as respectful homage than shameless theft, which just so happens to coincide quite nicely with one of the series’ central themes.
JOKER follows the eponymous Phantom Thief Joker, a mischievous young rascal with a penchant for theatrics and “creating miracles”, on his numerous journeys around the world as he steals various exotic treasures seemingly for the mere sport of it. Along the way, Joker is joined by Hachi, his diminutive ninja apprentice and designated sidekick, and Spade, a rival phantom thief with a bizarre apprentice of his own, along with many other colorful friends and enemies. While Lupin had Inspector Zenigata, Joker is always hotly pursued by the similarly imagined Inspector Oniyama, a bizarre little man who bears a grudging sense of respect for Joker even as he makes it his life’s sole mission to capture him and similar phantom thieves.
The concept of a “phantom thief” is established early and brought up frequently, presumably so as to further glorify the heroic thieves while condemning common burglars and robbers. Phantom thieves always send declarations of their intentions to steal a given item, giving the proper authorities ample notice and time to prepare countermeasures, the idea being that with the notice, the phantom thief’s escapades are more about matching wits and playing games of cat and mouse with that week’s treasure as the prize. It’s an important point to make for a show about crime that’s targeted towards kids, and any parents watching with younger children will most likely be happy to see it.
Indeed, JOKER is a fairly formulaic show from week to week, but it’s a formula that certainly works. Joker (or another thief) announces their plot, and the assembled characters pile tricks and traps one on top of another for twenty minutes until the credits roll. Dialogue is frequently funny, and many of the phantom thieves’ daring gambits are charming and surprising and add to the overall fun.
Since this is a show primarily for kids, JOKER replaces guns (mostly, bad thieves still have them) and other mature items with more outlandish, borderline magical tools such as Joker’s own infamous “Image Gum”, a special chewing gum that can be used to disguise just about anything or anyone as just about anything or anyone else. This and other farfetched inventions are far from plausible, but part of JOKER’s charm is that they don’t have to be. Crazy things happen and it’s fun in a wily Looney Tunes sort of way, at times.
This is definitely a show for the kids out there (the comic won a children’s manga award, after all) and it’s great for families with youngsters, but there’s also some quality details in there for older audiences as well. Some plotlines can be particularly dark or suspenseful, which is a nice aspect of children's anime you don’t always see in western cartoons. Episode 3, which deals with Joker’s childhood, is especially sad and maybe even a little frightening, featuring a home invasion by a villainous thief who is shaping up to be the series’ big bad guy.
Generally though, JOKER is a lighthearted, fun-loving series with plenty of witty capers and enough tricks to keep viewers of all ages hooked, and it’s one of the most refreshing (not to mention funniest) anime I’ve watched in a while. Don’t miss it, especially if you have kids who are just getting into anime!