"Lupin the Third: Island of Assassins" The Suspense May Kill You
If you’re one of the casual fans who don’t quite yet grasp the massive scope of the Lupin the Third franchise, this should give you some idea: the series has produced a TV special every single year from 1989 until today. These typically air during summer vacation, I suppose to maximize the young audience. With so many films being produced so close together, it’s no mean feat to maintain standards of quality and, more importantly, originality. In 1996 Lupin creator Monkey Punch set out to rejuvenate the franchise by making a rare appearance as director for the bold theatrical release Dead or Alive . Who would have thought that just a year later the TV special Island of Assassins (Walther P-38) would accomplish this task even more ably?
Although Dead or Alive gave the franchise a much-needed shot in the arm with its dramatic flair and stunning action, it was nevertheless a fairly conventional entry in terms of structure. Lupin, in pursuit of a fantastic treasure, aids a damsel in distress, and ultimately must confront her villainous oppressor to complete his quest. Though there are a couple of twists along the way, Dead of Alive was a quite straightforward story. Island boasts a more complex and suspenseful script that actually keeps one guessing right up until the very end, a definite rarity in a Lupin film. Usually I prefer the more obviously comedic adventures to these dramatic vehicles, but in this case I was too wound up in the plot to miss the humor much. I even ended up regretting that Monkey Punch didn’t choose this as his project instead of Dead or Alive. With theatrical production values and a couple more chuckles Island of the Assassins might well have been Lupin’s finest hour. As it is it comes very close.
Lupin makes his entrance at an elegant birthday party for the vice president and is quickly accosted by Inspector Zenigata. Zenigata wonders why Lupin left a note saying he would come to the party, but Lupin insists he didn’t. Suddenly a team of elite Tarantula group assassins crashes the party, and Lupin makes a break for it while the police struggle with them. The assassins manage to terminate the birthday boy, and one of them shoots Zenigata with a Walther P-38 identical to Lupin’s. Lupin gives chase by motorcycle but the assassins escape in a helicopter. Not to be denied, Lupin and Jigen head for the mysterious, uncharted island where Tarantula is based. They narrowly survive the assassins’ initial attack, and the ever-flirtatious Lupin takes a liking to the lovely but deadly female member Ellen. It turns out Lupin and friends are in pursuit of Tarantula’s huge gold stash, and Fujiko is already working on the inside with help from Goemon. Meanwhile Zenigata is eager to get on the case to prove Lupin wasn’t his shooter, but his boss orders him to recuperate first and saddles him with an overprotective young partner. Lupin is captured by the assassins and, like Fujiko before him, the Tarantula leader Gordeau has him tattooed with the Tarantula mark. No ordinary tattoo, it is poisonous and will kill instantly if the wearer is not constantly exposed to the gas pumped out of the island. The assassins wear breathers if they go out on a mission, but that is only a temporary fix. Ellen sets Lupin free and recruits him to help her and a number of similarly discontented cohorts escape the island. They offer a large ship that can carry away the island’s gold in exchange for his help in destroying the satellite laser that guards the island’s perimeter and retrieving the data that would allow an antidote to the poison to be formulated. Then things really get complicated, but I’ll leave that for the viewer to discover.
The regulars are pretty much their normal selves in this adventure. As in Dead or Alive, the supporting players unfortunately have little to do, at least until the climax. Goemon in particular is practically invisible, and Zenigata is sidelined nearly the entire film by his injury. We do learn that the unfailingly traditional Japanese Zenigata is a fan of the inexplicably popular folk-pop music known as enka, but try not to hold it against him. Gordeau is the typically vicious, nearly superhuman Lupin villain, but his designs are a bit more modest than most, and he even hints at an element of vulnerability. He has no wish to rule the world; rather he just wants to accumulate vast wealth. As usual the heroine is the deepest character, and it’s not until late in the film that we really understand the enigmatic Ellen.
There’s a large quantity of action in the film, most of which is not terribly memorable until the thrilling finale. The early action is hindered by the assassins’ nearly superhuman abilities, which would put them more at home in an X-Men movie than a Lupin crime flick. Not that Lupin films don’t always play fast and loose with physical reality, but this time they’re kind of pushing it. As with Dead or Alive, this is one of the more serious Lupin entries, but it has a few nice laughs. The best is a running joke with the poor invalid Zenigata repeatedly breaking limbs. There’s also a great non sequitor where Lupin and Ellen casually pass through the base supply store, and we see the counter manned by none other than the undercover and highly disgruntled Fujiko.
The animation in Island is a bit simple by Lupin TV special standards, and most of the more recent specials handily outclass it. It’s enough to get the job done, but the choppiness slightly undercuts some of the action scenes. On the plus side the transfer seems cleaner than Dead or Alive. The character designs land on the serious side, like Voyage to Danger and Dead or Alive. I must say Fujiko as a blonde looks particularly voluptuous, and we do get a pretty good look at her, if you take my meaning.
Having recently read that Funimation considers the Lupin franchise to be a “treasure,” I was most disappointed by the shockingly bad extras on this disc. The ever-present character profiles give the usual blurbs on the characters in the film, but if you’ve seen the film you already know all this and more. Also offered is an equally worthless image gallery, which is just a random collection of stills from the movie set to music. I don’t think something counts as an “extra” if it is already included in the main feature. I don’t know how close Funimation’s relationship is with Lupin’s licenser, but surely they could get their hands on some items of actual interest to fans, whether they be “Making of” footage, interviews with production staff, conceptual art galleries, or what have you. At least they’ve put the Japanese track in stereo this time and left the ending credits intact.
Lupin fans will be delighted by Island of the Assassins. Just when you thought you knew every trick in his book, this film pulls out a bunch of new ones. It is a riveting, edge-of-your-seat experience that is marred only slightly by the modest animation. Indeed, it would be a great introduction to the Lupin universe for the uninitiated, and if Hollywood is serious about a live action adaptation then they couldn’t do much better for a model. And speaking of models, lost in the film’s labyrinthine plot is that fact that Lupin obtains what may be his greatest prize of all: he is marooned on an island with Fujiko. Really, who could ask for more?