A Beginner's Guide to Lupin the 3rd

It can be daunting to jump into a decades old series, so here's a little help with where to start!

It can be a bit daunting to figure out where one should begin when first encountering the 50-year franchise that is Lupin the 3rd. Is it best to start from the beginning? Is the latest incarnation newbie-friendly enough to watch? Is there some other jumping-on point from which a new viewer can start? It isn’t a question with a perfect answer, but this discussion should give you an idea of the overall feel of the series and its major pieces.


Lupin the 3rd  both as a series and as a character – are creatures with one foot firmly planted in the past and another foot continually moving forward with the march of time.



When originally created in the late 1960s by manga artist Monkey Punch, Lupin was conceived as something of an amalgamation of the French “gentleman thief” Arsène Lupin, whose novels and short stories came to fame in the early 20th century, and James Bond, the British spy whose movies and books were a contemporary phenomenon. Lupin took the noble crook elements of Arsène, where he breaks the law while working against those of far more dubious morals, and married that with the jetsetting action and adventure of Bond.


Lupin was then paired with an assortment of supporting characters and foils ripped from other pulp-like genres and traditions. Jigen is the hard-boiled gunslinger, more comfortable behind a pistol and a bottle of booze than anything else. Goemon is a man even more out of time than Lupin,  bound to samurai traditions in a world that has long since moved past such trappings. Fujiko is the classic femme fatale, every bit Lupin’s equal and always making sure her intentions and loyalties are a mystery. Zenigata is Lupin’s eternal nemesis, locked in a never-ending struggle to bring the gang to justice while often finding himself working with them to handle a far more devious threat. Other characters have stuck around and contributed to this group dynamic, but it’s these core five characters that are at the heart of the Lupin series and who appear in every iteration.



Lupin the 3rd Part 1

The first nine episodes of Part 1 are decidedly different from most of what comes later. In addition to Lupin wearing his green jacket (the one which appears least frequently), these episodes introduce us to the five main characters, including a hostile first encounter between Lupin and Goemon. A large portion of the happy-go-lucky, good-natured humor that’s synonymous with the series is absent. This leads to these episodes leaning harder on the crime and violence aspects of the series, and for anyone even slightly familiar with the franchise, this may throw them for a loop.


That isn’t to say these episodes don’t have anything to offer. The second episode, "The Man They Called a Magician," introduces Pycal, a decidedly nasty villain who uses magic tricks to appear like a comic book villain, complete with super powers, and was memorable enough to return in an OVA from the early 2000s. Then there’s the fourth episode, "One Chance to Breakout," where Zenigata actually arrests and imprisons Lupin, and the bulk of the episode is spent watching Lupin waste away on death row as his friends fail to bust him out of prison. Cowboy Bebop’s creator, Shinichi Watanabe, referred back to these episodes as a major influence on his creation, so they’ve definitely left their mark in their own way, but they’re decidedly not what one thinks of when dwelling on Lupin as a whole.


These initial episodes were a bit of a bomb during the series’ initial run and led to a change of directors. Initial director Masaaki Osumi was replaced by the eventual co-founders of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and it's their stylings that solidified the more jovial, mercurial nature of the main cast. By the end of the series’ 23 episode run, it’s starting to take the form of what you expect from the franchise.


Should I Start Here? Maybe? If you’re interested in seeing the natural progression of the characters, then you’ll definitely want to start your quest here. But if you’re more interested in diving into something that’ll give you a good idea of the larger Lupin picture, I’d hold back on watching this particular series. It depends on what you’re looking for in your viewing.


Check out the first episode here!

 


Lupin the 3rd Part 2

If you caught Lupin during the period it aired on Adult Swim, or if you’ve seen the movie The Castle of Cagliostro, this is the version that introduced you to Lupin. Even if you’ve never seen an actual episode of Lupin, the imagery associated with the series and whatever stories and references you’ve seen and heard are likely heralding back to this era.


Part 2 introduces Lupin’s red jacket to the anime franchise (it being the color he wore in the manga), and builds upon the tone established in the Miyazaki and Takahata episodes from the back end of Part 1. That tone is maintained with no real discrepancies for 155 episodes, making Part 2 the longest, and possibly most consistent, series by far.


With that relative consistency, whether you like a given episode more than another likely boils down to personal preferences in genre and style. I’m rather fond of episode 11, "A Gift for the President," since it’s one of those “stories that take place at Christmas” and has a pretty amusing ending playing off of that theme. There’s also the infamous Nazi-centric episode, which Adult Swim refused to air at the time. If you’re interested in checking that out, it’s episode 26, "To Be of Nazi Be."

 

Also of note is the fact that the first two theatrical animated movies made their debut alongside Part 2: The Mystery of Mamo and The Castle of Cagliostro. Much has been said of Miyazaki’s Cagliostro, and it rightfully deserves its place in many people’s minds as the “definitive” Lupin story, but you shouldn’t pass up on Mamo. It takes some of the stranger, speculative elements that float around the series from time to time and has fun with them in a theatrical setting.


Should I Start Here? If you’re looking to get a taste of the “real” Lupin to see if it’s your thing or not, this is probably the place to do just that. You can easily start at the beginning of the series, or simply pick an episode at random, and you’ll know by the end of it if you like Lupin or not. You can do that, or you can pick up The Castle of Cagliostro, although I’d recommend catching a few episodes before jumping into such a big production. If you’re looking for the most conventional and safest bet to start your journey, do so with Part 2.


Check out the first episode here!

 


Lupin the 3rd Part 3

Part 3 introduces Lupin’s decidedly mid-1980s pink jacket, and with that also comes a bit of a departure from Part 2’s familiarity and consistency. The character designs initially hew closer to the original manga’s, and the stories, while still containing humor, delve a little more into the serious side. It’s not a perfect melding of the two styles of stories seen in the two prior series, since overall it still feels more like its direct predecessor, but the creators behind Part 3 definitely tries to do something different. Whether that different approach works will depend on what you’re looking for in a Lupin series.


As a whole, Part 3 is considerably looser and less “dependable” than Part 2. Character designs, animation styles, and overall the overall tone shift depending on who’s working on a given episode. If you’re looking for that easy to digest, comfort food sort of viewing experience, you’re better off going back to Part 2 or the latter half of Part 1. If you’re looking for something that plays with the rules a little bit and you don’t mind not getting what you’re expecting, then Part 3 has a lot to offer.


Of note is the fact that Seijun Suzuki, the film director best known for neo-noirs like Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter, worked on Part 3. In particular, he wrote episode 13, "Musical Variation of Monkey Business," and if you’re familiar with Suzuki’s films, this episode features his idiosyncratic stylings played to the max. To say anything else about the episode would be spoiling a unique experience, so if you’re down with Suzuki, or just want to see Lupin from a wholly different perspective, check that episode out.


Part 3 received one accompanying movie, The Legend of the Gold of Babylon. It was co-directed by Suzuki, along with Shigetsugu Yoshida, and much like the episode Suzuki wrote, it’s something to behold.


Should I Start Here? No! If there was a Master’s level of Lupin Studies, Part 3 would be that class’ coursework. You could easily enjoy any given episode without prior knowledge, but it’s something that needs some prior experience and context to fully grasp. If you’re new and have a choice, look elsewhere.


Check out the first episode here.

 


Other Films, OVAs, and Television Movies

With Part 3 ending in 1985, it would be almost 30 years before another Lupin television series would air. During that period, a handful of theatrical movies, as well as a series of OVAs and made for TV movies, were released.


The best of the bunch is most likely The Fuma Conspiracy. It was the first OVA released after Part 3, and its overall quality is easily on par with the prior theatrical releases. The remaining specials and OVAs are a mixed bag, with none of them being particularly bad, but none of them standing out enough to warrant their runtimes.


Should I Start Here? You wouldn’t go wrong with The Fuma Conspiracy being your introduction to the franchise. Otherwise, you’re better off sticking to one of the TV series as your first taste.



Lupin the 3rd: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine

While the Lupin franchise is a group effort, character-wise, outside of the occasional episode or TV special, Lupin is always the primary focal point of any given story. So given the 20-something year break between TV series, it’s interesting that Lupin’s return to episodic television makes him a secondary character. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine was the first time one of the other characters took the lead, and that shift in focus leads to a different sort of story.


Fujiko is a deliberately ambiguous character. Being born of the femme fatale stereotype, her intentions and motivations are never meant to be clear, and none of the characters really know where they stand with her. “Mysterious” is her defining character trait, but that can often lead to her being seen as a bit of a shallow character. This series tackles that perception head-on and gets into what makes Fujiko tick. It’s a fascinating character study that also manages to retain a lot of what makes the Lupin franchise as a whole charming and watchable. Also of note is that two women were the primary creative forces behind this series, with Sayo Yamamoto directing and Mari Okada acting as head writer. Up to this point, Lupin had been decidedly male-dominated, and that female perspective lends the series a different, and welcome, feeling.


Two OVAs have been released continuing the different approach started in The Woman Called Fujiko Mine: Jigen’s Gravestone and Goemon Ishikawa’s Spray of Blood. Neither character quite gets the same level of dissection and analysis as Fujiko, but both stories allow their titular characters to breath a little more than in usual Lupin stories.


Should I Start Here? There’s two ways to approach this question. One is to emphatically say no, since knowledge of these characters, especially Fujiko herself, makes the revelations all the more fascinating. On the other hand, it functions remarkably well in and of itself, and the directions it goes don’t require that prior knowledge to appreciate. I’d either jump right in and get started here, or wait until you’re well versed in Lupin before trying it out.



Lupin the 3rd Part 4

In a lot of ways, Part 4 feels like a return to something familiar. It takes place in Italy and San Marino, harkening back to a lot of the stylings from The Castle of Cagliostro. It’s the first “normal” Lupin TV series since Part 3 ended in 1985, bringing with it much of that humor and zaniness from earlier series. His jacket may be blue now, but this is very much the Lupin of old reborn in the 21st century.


With that rebirth we get the first real new member of the crew with Rebecca Rosellini. While Fujiko has always been depicted as equal to Lupin, her motivations are very different from Lupin’s. With Rebecca, Lupin finds a female foil who, while far from a perfect copy, thinks very much on his wavelength. She’s yet to appear in Part 5, outside of a brief picture of her as a known accomplice of Lupin, but her depiction in Part 4 makes her feel like the closest the series has gotten to adding a sixth wheel to the gang.


It’s also the first time one of the numbered series has something resembling an ongoing plot. While elements from prior episodes would pop up now and then, for the most part Parts 1-3 were all episodic in nature. While Part 4 has those elements, the ongoing thread with Rebecca and other story elements surrounding her give the series an inevitable ending point that no other series worked towards, save the tangential The Woman Called Fujiko Mine.


Should I Start Here? If you don’t start with Series 2, then this is your next best place to get started. If you’re looking for something a bit more modern, but still want to know what old school Lupin feels like, or if you find it hard to get into older series, Part 4 is for you.


Check out the first episode here!

 


Lupin the Third Part 5

As it’s currently airing, we’re not entirely sure where Part 5 will take us.


The first five episodes acted as the first “episode” of this run, completing an entire story that felt more like one of the TV specials than a run of Lupin episodes. Much of the visual stylings of Part 4 are retained in these episodes, and this story introduces us to another partner in crime with Ami, the super hacker whom Lupin drags into the “real world.” This initial story is a great update of the Lupin formula, utilizing modern technology and topics in a way that’s decidedly timely.


That said, the sixth episode, "Lupin VS The Smart Safe," goes in a different direction, harkening back to the sillier elements of Part 3. Is this going to be an anthology of different types of Lupin stories? Is it going to have a larger story arc like Part 4? We’re not quite sure yet, but it has a lot to offer for new and old fans alike.

 

Should I Start Here? You won't go wrong with the first five episodes, since they make for a great self-contained story, but if you have the time I’d recommend checking out some of Part 2 or Part 4 while waiting for the next new episode. The degree of self-awareness isn’t on the same level as The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, but some prior knowledge may be appropriate.


Check out the first episode here!

 

Hopefully this run through the history of Lupin has given you a good idea of where your tastes lie and where said tastes would best be served. With a 50+ year history, Lupin the 3rd is bound to have something for almost everyone. Enjoy!



 

You can follow Chad Landon Smith on Twitter @aMainCharacter and his blog Shin Mecha Guignol.

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