Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: July 2012, 18

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

04:41:00 pm , 1921 words, 29872 views     Categories: TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #13

I'm a little late in wrapping this show up, and other people have written better overviews of the good and bad aspects of the show than I probably can (notably Colony Drop and Analog Housou), but I've just seen the last episode so here are my thoughts.

I'd read the reviews, so I knew what was coming. All of the flashbacks we were presented as gradually building up to some big reveal about Fujiko's past turn out to have been planted in her brain by someone. They weren't Fujiko's memories at all. The whole show was a MacGuffin. Purporting to tell the story of Fujiko's origins, it does no such thing, and closes laughing in your face as the characters ride off into the sunset. Perhaps that is a fitting origin story for characters as protean as the Lupin III characters. There can be no origin story, and every purported origin story should be taken with a grain of salt.

The beauty of Lupin III is that its characters are so malleable. They've been re-invented constantly over the years. Everyone has a different notion of who Lupin really is in terms of his personality and visual rendering. The roundly drawn gentleman thief of Cagliostro couldn't be further from the rubbery, horse-faced schmoozer of Part 3, but both are Lupin. The characters have an amazing resilience to inhabit different personalities and situations, and that is undoubtedly part of the franchise's undying appeal. The Lupin characters here are as different as each previous Lupin III outing has been from its predecessors, but in their own way they are valid.

The problem here is that some of the changes they've made simply don't add up. My initial impression after watching episode 1 was that Zenigata's personality change didn't contribute anything and deadened the character for no reason, and Oscar was a useless add-on. I expected that impression to change as the show progressed. It didn't. Zenigata was never much of a serious opponent to Lupin or Fujiko, and Oscar was nothing more than an annoying concession to female fanservice. Fujiko, the main character, never takes anything like a leading role in her own show. She seems more of a trembling victim most of the time, which I think does her character a disservice.

In a show that was already lacking in a sufficiently strong running story, it seems doubly problematic to not only basically throw the whole story at you in the last episode, but then basically go on to say that everything that happened in the show prior to now was just BS. It comes across as saying to the audience that you're an idiot for having invested in the story and expected things to lead where the storyteller made it seem like it was leading. There's a difference between surprising the audience with an unexpected twist, and simply being capricious and taunting. The ending doesn't satisfy, it merely jerks around spasmodically in a way you didn't expect, then stops. The show had already failed to build any cohesive characters for you to invest in, and the ending doesn't offer any catharsis.

The show was extremely ambitious, and I'm almost willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for that reason. Few shows made these days can lay claim to attempting to go against the grain of the industry the way this show has, and it deserves praise for that. It almost comes across as an anti-moe anime, a morbid deconstuction of the idea of the lolita. With its feminist spin, adult themes and sophisticated writing, it was a more serious-minded and intellectualized Lupin III than has probably ever been seen. Maybe the Lupin III characters weren't enough to support such an experiment, but at the same time, who is to say what the real Lupin III is? There is no one Lupin III. Every Lupin III outing is the product of a particular team of people working at a particular time in anime history, and therefore putting the unique stamp that only they are capable of putting on the characters.

But it seems it was overweeningly ambitious, because the writers were not up to the task of putting the package together in a satisfying way. A haltingly successful deconstruction of narrative more tantalizing than convincing, it fell short as good storytelling. They clearly attempted to divide the story up over the allocated 13-episode span in a way that would provide variety and unpredictability and maintain suspense, with a different character highlighted early on, an action episode here and a story episode there, and the story gradually unfolding throughout. But the narrative merely wound up feeling disjointed and random and lacking in a cohesive central thread, and the story was not enough to support a whole series, as it could not be told in enough detail to make sense until the very last moment. I completely agree with Analog Housou that this story would have been much better suited to being told in a 90-minute TV special format.

Initially the show seemed to suggest that youthful physical and sexual abuse led to Fujiko's present day personality. It's good that that turned out not to be the case, but on the flipside, we never come away with any insight into Fujiko's personality or past. Fujiko didn't evolve out of the experience into the liberated, confident, sex-hungry lady she is today through the pain of the experience of being controlled by and overcoming her oppressor. She wasn't changed by the whole experience. She was that way to begin with. That is certainly more satisfying and less condescending than what the show seemed to be building towards, but at the same time it obviates the whole point of the story.

Ironically, filler episodes with no relation to the main story like episode 5 turned out to be the most memorable episodes in the series, largely due to the prowess of the team behind that particular episode. The moments of the show that felt best were not when the new characters like Oscar were on the screen, but when the old team dynamics began to fall into place and we could see the old characters we knew and loved beginning to emerge. The show simultaneously failed to work on the merit of its experiments, nor to usurp the musty old elements of the show. It felt like it only begrudgingly allowed the characters to be themselves, and it was those moments that shined.

The quality of the show did little to help. The animation was stolid and lacking in spark for the most part, save a few episodes or scenes where the animation stood up due to a talented person. That said, in view of the fact that they were clearly at a disadvantage in terms of schedule, I would have been willing to overlook the inferior quality of the animation, and judge them by what should have completely been in their control, namely the story. They should have made absolutely sure they had a rock-solid story even if they could not get the schedule to make each episode look perfect. The story should be the foundation. Their failure in this regard is where I can't bring myself to give the show a pass. At the same time, I can't believe that this show had that much less schedule than a show like Kemonozume or Kaiba, also one-season auteur-driven outings, and those shows were far more solid in terms of both animation and storytelling.

The big hype at the beginning of the show was that Takeshi Koike was designing the characters. That turned out to be a huge deception. I and probably others foolishly expected that he would be there behind the animation throughout the series, perhaps the way Kazuto Nakazawa was such a whirlwind force raising the quality of Samurai Champloo throughout the show. That did not turn out to be the case at all, either due to the much slower nature of Takeshi Koike's style or, more likely, because he simply didn't want to invest himself too much in the project for whatever reason. Either he was busy with other work or didn't have much faith in the project. After some work in the first episode, he was absent until the final episode, in which he drew some animation of the slo-mo bullet sequence.

The problem with the failure of the Takeshi Koike promise is that it also spelled out a failure in the animation department in general. Having his name attached led to expectations of extravagant animation, even if not of his hand, to bring alive his character designs, but the character animation was barely functional more often than not. As with many aspects of this project, enlisting Takeshi Koike seems to have been done capriciously and without sufficient thought in terms of what that required in terms of the animation, and whether his designs were appropriate to the limitations of the schedule. Obviously Redline could not have been produced in Fujiko's schedule, so perhaps Koike's efforts would have been futile anyway. Basically, despite them having gotten Takeshi Koike onboard as character designer, the characters didn't feel like his because they were so badly drawn most of the time.

On the visuals side, the show did carve out its own stylistic niche, with its moody compositions, obsessive character hatching, creative flourishes like the silhouette sequence and boat ride in episode 11, and the determinedly hand-drawn feeling of the drawings. I wasn't convinced by some of the decisions, though, especially the hatching, which felt unnecessary to the end. The obsessive depiction of owls of different kinds also felt somewhat self-indulgent and artsy rather than artistic. Aside from the affected pseudo-literary writing, that's my lingering problem with this show: it attempts to be artistic, but winds up being merely sophomorically artsy.

I want to see a Lupin III that's relevant to our world today - that addresses issues of relevance to the very different world we live in. There's no point in wallowing in old-fashioned stories of the kind that were told in the 1970s and 1980s outings. I know that, even though it's those Lupin III outings that I feel worked the best overall. Later Lupin III outings felt like hollow mimicry. At least this show is no half-hearted copy of a template. It's a bold new vision, albeit a deeply flawed one. I like that this show attempted to create a contemporary Lupin III. This show seemed somehow distantly inspired by various edgy topics in today's society - from Bhopal to child trafficking - and for that I appreciate what it tried to do, although I think they were too oblique about it still. While it's not a show I ended up liking, it's a show I very much wanted to like.

I think it's commendable to have such strong women voices as Mariko Okada and Sayo Yamamoto leading the way with a show like this. There have been women directors previously, but this is one of the first shows that was clearly a showcause of an auteur vision rather than merely a workmanlike production in which feminine and personal identity did not play a part. Their personalities come through loud and clear in the material, for good or ill. I can't bring myself to let my overwhelmingly negative opinion of the show overshadow the fact that they clearly put themselves on the line with this show and tried some daring things - some of which succeeded and others didn't - and for that they command respect and show a positive example.