"Lupin Dead or Alive" Something Old, Something New, Something Stolen and Good Fun Too
I will presume that the exploits of Lupin the Third, world’s greatest thief, no longer need much introduction. Lupin is probably one of the most famous and longest-running anime franchises in Japan, and thanks to the TV show’s recent run on Cartoon Network it is now known stateside as well. Of the many Lupin films, five were theatrical releases, and the fifth of these finally reaches the American market with Funimation’s DVD release of Dead or Alive. It is exceptional not only as the final theatrical release, but also, more importantly, as the only Lupin film actually directed by series creator Monkey Punch.
I was giddy with anticipation of the 1996 Japanese release of Dead or Alive, which was accompanied with a blitz of hype about how Monkey Punch was taking the series, at the time slowly sinking into genial complacency, back to its grittier roots. Briefly falling under Lupin’s criminal influence, I appropriated a promotional poster from the wall of a video arcade when no one was watching. I sat down in the theater electrified with excitement, eager to see how Monkey Punch would deliver on his promise. A bit unevenly as it turned out. Although the story about love and revolution is more gripping than the usual treasure scavenger hunt, and some of the action scenes do have an refreshingly harder edge to them, the overall product is not terribly dissimilar to other 90s Lupin films. Which isn’t exactly a bad thing, and it’s entertaining in any event, but I was so hoping for more of the wacky straight-from-the-manga feel of the first Lupin film The Secret of Mamo. The prologue at least definitely has that vibe going, probably because it was written by Monkey Punch himself, whereas the bulk of the film unfortunately was not.
Lupin and cohorts Jigen and Goemon begin their usual treasure hunt on the eerie, deserted Drift Island, which is composed primarily of a bizarrely landlocked aircraft carrier littered with corpses. They narrowly make it out with their skin intact (if not their pants) when the island’s robotic defense system activates. Subsequently Lupin’s research reveals that the former king of the adjacent Mediterranean kingdom of Zufu used the island as a vault for the country’s treasures. However, the king and his son Pannish were recently overthrown and executed, leaving Zufu and its treasure in the hands of the dictator General Headhunter and his henchman Crisis. Headhunter’s disaffected daughter Emerah is rumored to be a prime source of information on the island. Meanwhile Interpol inspector Zenigata and femme fatale Fujiko also show up in Zufu, the former hoping to catch Lupin in the act and the latter seeking to use her charms to get close to Headhunter. Sure enough Team Lupin strikes, spiriting away Emerah from under Zenigata and Headhunter’s noses. However, Zenigata proves to be a step ahead of Lupin this time, for the girl is actually Ole, a Zufu security agent in disguise. Homing in on her signal, Crisis launches a blistering attack on Lupin’s hideout, which our heroes barely escape. It turns out that Ole was Prince Pannish’s lover, and she is amazed to hear from Lupin that he is actually still alive. At the palace, Headhunter assigns Fujiko to watch over Emerah, who agrees to reveal what she knows about the treasure if Fujiko will help her escape. Ole prowls the dangerous streets of the city desperately searching for some sign of Pannish, and eventually he finds her. He explains that he went underground to organize resistance forces, and bids Ole keep at her job so she can pass on info to him. The pressure rises as Crisis puts out a million dollar bounty on Lupin’s head, and orders Ole to seek out Pannish’s headquarters.
The main cast of Lupin is by now so famous that most readers will already be well acquainted with the lecherous yet honorable master thief Lupin, gruff marksman Jigen, stoic samurai Goemon, manipulative seductress Fujiko, and dedicated but bumbling detective Zenigata. The only thing that really changes from one adventure to the next is how much screen time each receives. Dead or Alive is a typical Lupin-dominated tale, with the others consigned to relatively brief supporting roles where they wait around for Lupin to come into contact with them. Since the film is played fairly seriously, neither Lupin nor Zenigata does much goofing around, and an unusually chaste Fujiko seems to manage to keep her hands to herself. As for the other prinicipals, Headhunter and Crisis are well-worn Lupin archetypes: the bombastic, murderous leader and the slimy, conniving underling. Ole is easily the deepest and most interesting character. Doing distasteful work for the odious Crisis in the hopes of bringing her lover Pannish’s killer to justice, she is suddenly confronted with the fact that not only has all that effort been for naught, but in fact the love of her life is still very much alive. In a drama this would be cause for much intriguing introspection, but unfortunately Lupin’s tight schedule allows for little of this and we’re quickly whisked off to the next action scene. Not that Lupin fans would have it any other way.
Although quite entertaining overall, Dead or Alive is a little short on standout scenes. The action highlight is the glorious James Bond-style opening in which a disguised Lupin conducts a daring prison break, leading to a thrilling if wildly improbable car chase over mountains and across chasms. Several of the other big action set pieces are unfortunately dominated by the island’s organic robot defenses, which are so ridiculously unbelievable that they undermine any possible tension. As a longtime Lupin fan I am well aware that a healthy suspension of disbelief is necessary for full enjoyment, but this is pure sci-fi and feels really out of place. Among the few laughs in this mostly dramatic Lupin film is Zenigata’s revelation that he added “Love” to the title of his upcoming autobiography “Love and War with Lupin III” so as not to alienate female readers. Also amusing is when Lupin escapes the clutches of a bounty hunter by gleefully hitching a ride with a barely clad sexpot on a motorcycle, only to soon discover that she is speeding to the top of a building to throw him off for her own enrichment.
Since Dead or Alive is one of the few Lupin theatrical releases, the animation is a notch above most of the other films and very smooth looking, but nothing too different. It represents possibly the first use of CG elements in a Lupin film, which appear a bit crude to the modern eye. The character designs are a departure from other Lupin films of the era, leaning toward the mature and glamorous rather than the cartoony. Zenigata actually looks shrewd and even a bit dashing for a change. The transfer looks a little rough, with obvious spots in some places. A remastered version is sorely needed, not to mention a Japanese stereo track. Sure there’s the 5.1 English track, but it’s hard to imagine many fans familiar with the unparalleled original cast spending much time on it.
The one and only special feature on offer is a brief interview with Lupin manga creator Monkey Punch from the 2003 Anime Fest. He does reveal some fascinating information about the Lupin series, particularly that his drawing style was heavily inspired by MAD Magazine cartoonist Mort Drucker, and that “Monkey Punch” was a pseudonym forced on him by his editor to have his name match the ambiguous nationality of his artwork. When you think about it, there really is an uncanny resemblance between some of his drawings and Drucker’s. Unfortunately the few questions about Dead or Alive itself are mostly lame, such as why the computers in the film appear to be Macintoshes. Was Apple sponsoring this DVD? I could easily think of dozens of more interesting questions were I fortunate enough to have an audience with Monkey Punch. Anyway, fans will enjoy the interview, but quickly be disheartened by the lack of a “making of” documentary, art gallery, or even insert. Not to mention the inexplicably missing end credits, which are often an entertaining part of a Lupin film. Funimation really fell asleep at the wheel on this one.
Lupin fans will surely want to pick up Dead or Alive. It’s one of the more involving Lupin films, and probably close to the best animation yet for the franchise. Who knows, if enough people buy it we may get a special edition to replace this fairly shabby release. Anything less, well, is a crime. Paging Inspector Zenigata…