Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Lupin x III: The First, the live-action, The Castle of Cagliostro

I'd planned to do a Kitamura/Miyazaki double feature at some point during all this (gestures at 2020), but pushed it off a bit when I saw that there was a CGI version due to get a Fathom release, although it looked like that might be out of reach when a lot of the theaters scheduled to show it closed. It got booked at Boston Common, though, and I opted for the Sunday afternoon show over tonight's evening one. Didn't realize that meant I was getting it dubbed rather than subtitled, but that's why you read all the details closely.

(Obligatory "don't go to the movies if you don't feel it's safe or can't otherwise minimize risks" disclaimer. There were six people in the room and no concessions giving us reason to take our masks off.)

It turned out to be a much more entertaining couple days of movie-watching than I anticipated! I suspect that I'm not particularly unusual in basically knowing of Lupin III as the series which includes The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki's first feature and the most readily available of the series (although the one not included in the box set because it's not only not a Ghibli film but licensed to different distributors). I don't know that I consciously ever absorbed a specific narrative that these movies were bland pap that rising star Miyazaki elevated, but that's kind of the default when you take a director-centric view of film, or just about any career: Doing stuff like Cagliostro is seen as paying your dues and often presumed to be exploitative, and that such stuff is less worthy (at least, before the modern day when a whole lot of people act like doing something acclaimed and original is a stepping-stone to working for Marvel).

The thing is, though, all three Lupin III movies I watched over a couple of days are fun in their own ways. It's the sort of franchise that you don't see much of these days, where the idea is less to set up one story than to create an environment where you can tell not just many different stories, but many types of stories, and since it doesn't look to have ever had a hard reset, it never got refocused in a way that would prevent it from being James Bond adventure one day, light slapstick capers the next, noirish crime the third, and Indiana Jones cliffhanging the before starting again, with a little of each sprinkled in among the others.

I suspect that at some point, I'm going to have some fun dipping into Amazon Prime and the like to see which series are available to stream, not particularly worried if I have to do some skipping around between 1971 and 2019 because it's not like there's fifty years of tight continuity. I'll also kind of marvel that the Ryuhei Kitamura one isn't there, especially since I strongly suspect that I made other plans when it played Fantasia back in 2015 because it was a no-brainer that something like this would get U.S. distribution.

(Also, as much as I'd generally like it if people ordered from my Amazon links - I feel like I've been close enough to being able to redeem for a gift card for years - the price currently on there is crazy; you can order the same Hong Kong BD from DDDHouse and probably still get it for less even if you're having it be the only thing in your shipment, although I certainly recommend buying a bunch of things so that the shipping cost per film is less!)

Lupin III: The First

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2020 in AMC Boston Common #15 (Fathom Events, English-dubbed DCP)

I wonder to what extent audiences in the west (and particularly the United States) think of Lupin III as just the main character of the Hayao Miayazaki film that isn't in the boxed set rather than a franchise that has been going for 50 years and is very popular in his own right in Japan and elsewhere. It's fine; you've got to start somewhere and one of the fun things about it is that it's got the sort of all-but-nonexistent continuity where you can jump in anywhere - say, with this digitally-animated version from 2019 - and have a pretty good time.

The film opens with a prologue set just outside of Paris during World War II, as a legendary archaeologist's family escapes with his intricately-locked diary just ahead of the Nazis - though not far enough ahead. Twenty years later, a museum is including the Bresson Diary as part of an exhibit, with gentleman thief Arsene Lupin III announcing his plans to steal it at the last minute. Security guard Laetitia spots him, but secretly absconds with it herself, before Lupin's rival Fujiko Mine swoops in while the other two fight. She delivers it to her clients, French Professor Lambert and German true-believer Geralt, and that's just the beginning of the double-crosses on the way to unlocking the diary, which supposedly contains a map to Bresson's greatest find: The Eclipse device, a powerful energy source created by an ancient civilization that can generate seemingly limitless energy... or focus it into a deadly weapon.

This is my first Lupin III adventure (though I've had two others on my shelf for a while), and it serves as a very enjoyable introduction to Monkey Punch's gentleman thief and his friends: It leans into the bigger parts of their personalities without making them look foolish, hints at long-standing elements that make everything more cohesive without actually requiring the audience to know backstory, and generally does a good job of starting small but building into something grandiose. Screenwriter/director Takashi Yamazaki sets this particular adventure in a time period that's deliberately vague - there's an "over 10 years later" caption that probably covers at least fifteen, with a mix of technology and fashions from throughout the second half of the twentieth century - but draws on the best bits of several eras of globetrotting adventure.

It's also got some big and fun set pieces, particularly the early shell game with the diary that includes a niftily choreographed rooftop tussle (neither Lupin nor Laetitia really wants to fight and it's not really a chase) and a helicopter out of nowhere, as well a car chase that shows off the impossible skills of supporting characters Jigen and Goemon in a way that I gather is a hallmark of the franchise. The character designs make a nice transition to 3-D rendering - even Lupin himself, whose pinched monkey-like face and sideburns always look kind of off, looks pretty good - with the cartoony style feeling more or less like what many live-action manga adaptations trying to capture the style of the original artist are just missing.

It falls a bit short of being really impressive in some ways; for something that feels pitched to teens rather than younger kids, the English script at least could aim a little higher, although it can be tough to tell whether that's translation or voice-acting. The story ambitions seem to outstrip the maturity of the script on occasion, even before getting to some weird Hitler bits. The finale is also the sort of large scale action scene that maybe looks better on the small screen, like the filmmakers can't quite decide on the scale.

Mostly, though, it's a fun, fast-paced adventure with a zippy score, and that's good for an afternoon. There have been a lot of Lupin III productions over the decades, sometimes running in parallel, and if this winds up being the first of several made in this style, they'll be worthy additions to a list that's already had some noteworthy contributors.

Also at eFilmCritic

Rupan sansei (Lupin the 3rd)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

The characters in this live-action take on the Lupin III comics has enough English-language dialogue on the one hand and a filmmaker in who has worked in both Japan and Hollywood on the other that one wonders to what extent the studio had visions of a global release that never really happened (it doesn't appear to have had theatrical or home releases in the United States at all). That would serve to at least partially explain why this feels like a movie trying to serve multiple audiences and likely not satisfying any; for all that this has always been a flexible franchise, it seems stretched into directions that don't entirely work.

It opens with a handful of master thieves - Lupin (Shun Oguri), Fujiko (Meisa Kuroki), Pierre (Kim Jun), Michael (Jerry Yan), Jiro (Shunichi Yamaguchi) - converging on the private Hougang Museum of Art in Singapore, aiming to steal the Medal of Zeus, said to have been awarded in the first Olympics. Interpol inspector Koichi Zenigata (Tadanobu Asano) tracks them to Hong Kong, suspecting them to be part of a criminal organization known as "The Works", led by Brit Thomas Dawson (Nick Tate). A betrayal at the meeting has the group's most precious treasure stolen, with Lupin and allies chasing the traitor to Thailand, where he intends to reunite the two halves of the Crimson Heart of Cleopatra. Retrieving that will require Lupin and company to pull off their biggest heist yet, breaking into the apparently impregnable Ark operated by security mogul Pramuk (Nirut "Ning" Sirichayna).

I'm not familiar enough with the original manga by Kazuhiko Kato (best known by the pen name "Monkey Punch") or the various animated productions to know to whether Dawson and The Works are original to this version or pulled from the source material; in either case, director Ryuhei Kitamura and screenwriter Rikiya Mizushima are building a sort of hybrid version where some situations are long-established, some character are meeting for the first time, and some appear to be new introductions (a crew didn't need a hacker when Lupin first appeared in 1967). Usually, when building a new version like this, filmmakers will put the title character at the center of the story, but while Lupin is doing a lot of running around, the story is never really about him; he make be looking to avenge a mentor, but he's two or three steps away from the stuff that is making everything happen. It's a weird decision when this may be one's only shot at this sort of property.

Their take on the character is a bit less whimsical than others' and closer to a straight crime picture, and it's a tough fit at times; it's the sort of comic book movie where the costume department uses a lot of black leather even if they do eventually drift toward more iconic looks. The movie actually starts to loosen up a bit when Go Ayano shows up as the most serious-minded character; his Goemon Ishikawa is basically a ronin samurai dropped in the middle of a modern heist story and his incongruous presence means that Kitamura and the cast can only play it so straight from there forward. Shun Oguri and co-stars Tetsuji Tamyama, Meisa Kuroki, and Tadanobu Asano start looking like they're having fun as Lupin and his crew start planning a flashy, elaborate heist and they start looking the part, even if Oguri, like most human beings, doesn't really have the rubber face necessary to really capture Monkey Punch's art.

Oguri's capable when it comes to action but never seems quite so assured as Go Ayano and Meisa Kuroki, which shows in not just how many fight scenes those two get compared to the rest of the cast, but how easily Ayano seems to move during the required car chase when Goemon is climbing out of the vehicle to dispatch someone with a sword. For all that Kitamura first rose to international fame on the back of action that was grander and faster-paced than many of his local peers, that part of this movie is a fairly mixed bag, like he often can see how a fight is supposed to go and be paced but can't quite get the shots he needs to put it together, although the times when all the pieces do fit are a lot of fun. It's frustrating that the moments that feel like they should be big turning points with action boosting the emotion of the scene are often scripted as fairly drab.

It's not really a surprise, then, that this never became the global hit that Toho was likely hoping for, even with the international locations and dialog that runs much more smoothly than is usually the case when people are using English as a common language. It doesn't quite treat the things fans love about Lupin III as weaknesses, but it seldom fully embraces them, too often winding up in no-man's-land.

Also at eFilmCritic

Rupan sansei: Kariosutoro no shiro (Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

The Castle of Cagliostro is often marketed in the United States without highlighting how it is part of an ongoing series of comic-inspired productions that first appeared on Japanese television in 1971 and has been in almost continual production in one form or another since. It is, after all, Hayao Miyazaki's first feature, and as such fits a certain part of a familiar narrative: The work-for-hire thing he did before being able to start his own studio that nevertheless shows glimpses of his true talent. It turns out to be a rare case of the movie that satisfies both a franchise's fanbase and an artist's, a familiar adventure that benefits from having someone as great as Miyazaki working on it.

It opens with master thief Arsène Lupin III and his partner Daisuke Jigen stealing fifty million dollars from a European casino, only to discover that the money is all counterfeit. These "Gothic Notes" come from the small principality of Cagliostro, called a black hole as those who attempt to investigate the source tend to disappear. No sooner have they crossed the border, though, than they have another problem - a runaway bride being chased by secret-police types, whom they soon learn is Lady Clarisse, recently returned from a convent and expected to marry the regent, who believes she holds the key to a massive treasure. Lupin and Jigen send for frequent partner Goemon Ishikawa and also make sure that Interpol detective Koichi Zenigata follows them; it turns out that rival Fujiko Mine is already undercover in the castle as Clarisse's keeper - and that Lupin may have reasons beyond pure random chivalry to get involved.

The story is more than a bit messy, in the way that is often the case with movies that are spun off from ongoing series are, half Lupin inserting himself into someone else's problem and half already part of it, before you get to there only being so many ways to bring Goemon, Fujiko, and Zenigata into the story or make Clarisse an active part of it. It doesn't matter that much, though; Miyazaki and co-writer Haruya Yamazaki do nice work of keeping everything moving in the moment, establishing high stakes but using cartoony devices from impossible car chases to a Wile E. Coyote-eque pause before falling down a trap to mostly keep things light and moving quickly.

And though much of the visual style may be derived from the original Monkey Punch manga and previous TV series, Miyazaki was a director on that show, and it's easy to see how its look would influence his own, with the baroque armored henchmen, or how the titular castle has a classic storybook look but all sorts of retro-futuristic and Saturday-serial elements. He's good at visually coding things so that the gangly figures of folks like Lupin mark him as a scrappy underdog in relation to the Count's bulk without them looking like they're separate species as so often seems to be the case. Even for 1979, this doesn't look like an expensive animated movie, but Miyazaki clearly knows his tools well enough even at this early stage to get the most from them.

That's especially noteworthy when Lupin and company leap into action. Animation at this time was a medium where the technology often encouraged static, planar visuals with tricks to suggest speed and depth, but Miyazaki and his crew will have his characters circle each other and dash through a scene that doesn't just feel like a painted backdrop. Characters move and interact in a way that feels solid and fluid the way well-staged live-action does, but it never just feels like the filmmakers are imitating that, working with both the art form's limitations and special abilities to create something that feels both tangible and fantastic, making what's on screen exciting.

Miyazaki would go on to create grander animated features with loftier storytelling ambitions, and but for a hiatus in the early 1980s, TMS would keep producing Lupin III adventures for television and theaters every year, steadily evolving while remaining true to the original style despite recent forays into live-action and CGI. It's worked out pretty well for both, and it's impressive just how well this relatively early intersection still holds up.

Also at eFilmCritic

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