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With this episode the quality has picked itself back up after the tumble of episode 3. The animation is obviously at the intended level, the directing is assured, and the story is well enough put together, with the twists and turns you expect of a Lupin III caper.
The story is a permutation of the phantom of the opera myth. While hardly novel, it's well enough put together, and the characters come alive well. The plot advances through the varying viewpoints of Fujiko, Lupin and Zenigata in a satisfying way, although the writing seems to deliberately keep Lupin in the shadows in an active attempt to downplay his spotlight-stealing character.
I was expecting the series to proceed to bring the team together by this point, but not yet. I didn't quite realize it while watching, but this episode was probably intended to to be the Zenigata episode to the preceding Jigen and Goemon episodes. Zenigata got only a token appearance in episode 1. Indeed, Zenigata has more screentime than Lupin in this episode.
This episode lays out Zenigata's character quite clearly: This is not the Zenigata of old. Jigen and Goemon seem essentially the same characters, but Zenigata is an altogether different character from any previous anime version. I'm not familiar enough with the manga to say whether he was like this in the manga. Here, he almost appears to be a corrupt cop driven by a twisted obsession with killing Lupin. He tries to - not arrest - but shoot Lupin.
But that's nothing compared to the opening scene, which is by far the most shocking scene in the series so far - and it shocks without even needing to show any nudity. Don't read the rest of this paragraph unless you've watched the ep or intend to. I couldn't believe what I'd seen, partly because they didn't actually show anything and only implied it verbally in the aftermath, but Fujiko appears to have had sex with Zenigata to buy her freedom from the slammer. It's a scene that appears specifically calculated to shock viewers accustomed to the old image of Zenigata, who before was a sexless, naive, even goofy borderline Inspector Clouseau caricature of the by-the-book, rules-following Good Cop. It makes it clear that they've thrown out the old Zenigata and rewritten him from scratch. I got a sense that this was the case from the snippets in episode 1, but this is even more of a change than I expected.
Whatever my personal reservations, the first episode did a good job of conveying the fact that Fujiko was a different character in this series, more 'liberated', and the series was not taking the coy approach to sexuality of the old Lupin III, which hinted and suggested more than ever doing anything sexual. This episode did the same for Zenigata. The show's more open sexuality brings it closer to Monkey Punch in a sense, but it seems to me a more real and pragmatic approach to sexuality than the jokey cartoonified way it was treated by Monkey Punch (at least from what little I've seen of his original manga). On the other hand, they use the whole Mars symbol/Venus symbol schtick that Monkey Punch always used in sex scenes, as they did in Mankatsu, and that's something we never saw before in the anime version of Lupin III.
The writing of the story was fairly intricate and the dialogue was full of witty, ironic barbs thanks to writer and series structure supervisor Mari Okada. Her style of humor seems a good match with Sayo Yamamoto's sensibility. My only complaint is that the big reveal at the end was a little predictable as well as lame and implausible.
The episode's structure is provided by storyboarder Atsushi Takahashi, who directed two of the more visually compelling episodes of Masaaki Yuasa's Kemonozume (episodes #3 & #12). He seems a candidate ideally suited to bringing to life the decadent, erotic, sumptuous visual atmosphere this series is aiming for, and indeed the episode is filled with shadowy, cavernous interiors, though unfortunately he doesn't go nearly as far with the creative presentation as he did in Kemonozume. The enigmatic flashback, pictured above, was drawn in a more stylized and extravagantly detailed, almost storybook, style. Along with the opening, this scene seems to capture the atmosphere of wanton eroticism that sets the show apart. Unfortunately, this vision seems watered down too much of the time and never comes through forcefully enough for my taste. The opening seems like it's trying to evoke Belladonna, but they never go nearly as far as that movie did.
The episode takes place in Paris, but aside from a few opening shots, this potentially interesting setting was not exploited at all, as the entire episode takes place in the bowels of an opera house. There were a few shots of the streets of Paris early on where I noticed they actually drew a Citroen accurately, which was nice to see, because on the car front the show has been a little lacking so far.
Incidentally, several French animators have been heavily involved in the show so far - Eddie Mehong, Cédric Hérole, and Christophe Ferreira - and all three worked as key animators in this episode. Christophe Ferreira was once working at Telecom on Buta. Eddie Mehong has put up a reel of his work on Japanese productions on his blog. Cédric Hérole made a beautiful short film entitled Mimi Carina: Emilie au pays des Morts in 2005.
The animation director was Hiroshi Shimizu, who was also involved in Kemonozume and of course was the character designer of Sayo Yamamoto's breakout series Michiko & Hatchin. Shimizu Hiroshi is an ex-Oh Pro animator - he worked on episode 49 of Part 3, which is the Oh Pro episode I recommended in my post on Part 3. He is a great animator/sakkan in his own right and his involvement no doubt goes a long way to accounting for the quality of the episode.
I can't help but find it ironic how the second Lupin III series managed to produce so many episodes packed with interesting movement using minuscule regular rotation teams of as few as one or two animators, whereas here they require almost 20 animators and virtually none of the movement is particularly interesting. I doubt they had any less schedule than the second series animators did. That's not an observation unique to this show particularly. Back then animators just seemed better about being able to draw volume as well as quality. It's not just the second Lupin III series that had tiny rotation teams of between 1 and 4 people. Most anime was made that way back then. Usually it's for the best that we have more people working on an average anime episode today, because those small teams usually did crappy work - not surprising considering the pressure they were under. But the good animators, under the same pressure to produce way more shots of animation, developed in a way that made them hone their shots down to the essence, all while having more fun with the work and drawing freer and more playful drawings. While the animation back then viewed today seems less detailed and cruder, in the hands of the good animators it was often more successful and pleasing as animation. Obviously, that's not to say that there aren't plenty of animators doing great work on TV schedules today, but sadly they haven't been able to get many of them for this show.