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I've been meaning to post something other than about this show, but I've been a little too busy... At least this show forces me to write something once a week.
Now this is more like it! This episode had pretty much everything I've been wanting to see in this show the whole time: a story with adult themes and wit, packaged in stylish drawings and fun, engaging directing. None of the previous episodes were up to this level. Either the episode had a good story but weak animation or something else felt missing. This one hit every note just right. Extremely fun to watch from start to finish, with a witty script and adventure story pitting the main characters against one another, while still managing to do a lot of great visual storytelling. The good (and surprising) staffing of this episode makes me more optimistic about the future episodes.
Shin Itagaki was the storyboarder, director as well as one of the animation directors and even top spot in the key animation credits, so he's the big man behind this episode. He's done by far the work with the strongest personality on the show so far. He has done a lot of work on action style shows in a TV context over the last few years, so he has obviously gained a lot of experience in how to make an exciting episode on a short schedule/budget. This episode is a prime example proving the idea that even on a short budget with no schedule, it's possible to do good work; it's just about the staff. The old Lupin III animators were really good, but technically speaking I think the really good staff today are even better than those guys were back then in terms of raw power and in terms of knowing little techniques to make every shot they draw feel good, and Itagaki is a prime example of such an animator. (though he didn't draw this whole episode; there were 15 other key animators) He knows how to maintain interest through the directing, for example sliding the background slowly in still shots to maintain momentum (something he probably learned from Imaishi).
I liked how the episode had that good old Indiana Jones adventure story action, all of it done with satisfyingly exciting animation. Itagaki worked alongside Imaishi in the past, and you can sense the Kanada influence in his work here. He brought on other Kanada-influenced animators like Anime R animator Fumiaki Kouta and Futoshi Higashide. The part with the fire pictured above felt like Kouta with its heavily stylized Kanada-school effects. Higashide I first became aware of from his crazy work on Dead Leaves. He also drew a nice solo episode of Dokkoida. He's done a lot of work since then, but I haven't followed him closely. He's not a pure Kanada-school animator. He's something more unique. There were some really wacky and fun drawings around where the scorpions show up, so I wonder if he didn't do that part.
Either way, these two animators no doubt helped Itagaki bring alive the action scenes. There were lots of shots that felt really nice as animation around the part where Jigen and Lupin are facing off against one another and Jigen is running around evading the traps. This was the first episode that delivered the kind of action rush I expect of Lupin III. Appropriately enough, Itagaki started out at Telecom, which is perhaps why he snuck a cameo of Yasuo Otsuka riding a jeep into the episode. That was nice to see. He has often mentioned Otsuka from his days at Telecom in one of his columns. He worked at Telecom for almost 7 years before going freelance, so he's an honest to goodness Telecom animator. You can see a few drawings he drew of himself grinning happily while he's learning from Otsuka here.
Shin Itagaki also has a good sense of humor. It's the sort of visual humor you associate with Imaishi. He knows how to time and stage shots in a way that is playful and fun. The shot where Jigen can't quite get his zippo to spark up was a great gag lead-in to the fire booby trap, for example. I liked the live-action Jigen-Lupin face-off shot at midway. I wonder whose face that was. Itagaki also has a good sense for getting the important little details we associate with the show right, like the accurate drawings of the guns - you can see the writing on the bullets when Jigen loads his Magnum. There were also plenty of cool and stylish shots. I particularly liked the angled layouts and long shadows in the closing scene.
The Kanada school was in full swing with all sorts of followers by the time of the third Lupin III show in the mid-80s, so there were inevitably moments of Kanada-school animation in that show, though for the most part the show felt more A Pro than Kanada thanks to supervisor Yuzo Aoki. Many years later, Itagaki is an interesting hybrid - Telecom yet Kanada, he has exactly the sort of touch it would take to make Lupin III episodes as fun and free as the old episodes. He's not alone; there are plenty of other animators who could do work up to his level. Perhaps they should have focused on going in that direction. If they had managed to get the right animators, the shortage of staff wouldn't have been such an issue. That's one of the nice things about how so many animators today are freelance. I would assume it facilitates getting someone onboard if you're a producer looking for good staff and you want them on your show. I'd love to see a show where an animator like Itagaki is forced to draw a whole episode or half episode in a fairly short schedule, the way the animators of the old shows undoubtedly were. I like the idea of a talented animator forced to whip out the shots in a more quick and spontaneous style rather than laboring over the shots. Even rough-around-the-edges animation from a great animator is preferable to mediocre animation that's detailed but without spark.
Story-wise, we're in Egypt again. Lupin got possessed by the mask of Tutankhamun in red jacket episode 7 and visited Egypt again in Mamo, while he made excursions to nearby Algeria in red jacket episode 30 and then Iraq in Gold of Babylon. In a desert connection, there was good desert action in Bye Bye Liberty in Death Valley.
Finally, we're past the introductory episodes and we've got several of the main characters together. Only Zenigata and Goemon are missing. I have to admit it's nice not having Zenigata predictably showing up every episode shouting "Taiho da~~~!" I felt they adhered way too strictly to that convention in the old show and the stories would have benefited from a little variety.
There was nice tension between Lupin and Jigen as they tested one another while dodging the various death traps, with Fujiko the cunning trickster manipulating the both of them towards her own ends all the while. That dynamic was just right. All of the character had something of a harder and more serious edge than they did before. The clash of these three personalities is honestly more interesting than the bland camaraderie of much previous Lupin. Lupin, Jigen and Goemon are the same old characters we knew, but a little more hard-edged, while Zenigata has a new personality, and Fujiko is the same character, but far more layered and complex than before. And now she's a nudist.
There was one instance of staff continuity in this episode: Hideyuki Motohashi. He is one of the former Z5 animators I wrote about in my post on the pink jacket series. He first came to prominence in the late 1970s as an animator equally at home drawing mecha action and bikei characters on the TMS robot action show Tetsujin 28. It's nice to see this veteran still working on the front lines as an animator after all these years. It's fascinating that an old school animator like this can even adapt himself to drawing more modern cute characters with the recent Kamisama Dolls.