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Ever since the third TV series of 1984-1985, Lupin III has lived on mostly in yearly TV specials of uneven quality that were often disappointing despite frequently ambitious staff casting. The very first TV special was Bye Bye Liberty Crisis, directed by Osamu Dezaki and aired on April 1, 1989. Dezaki went on to direct the first few TV specials before they were handed on to a succession of different directors.
I just saw this film for the first time today, and I was impressed by it. I'm used to disappointment with these TV specials, but I'd easily rank Bye Bye Liberty Crisis as the best post-Fuma Clan Lupin III film I've seen.
It's clear why TMS turned to Osamu Dezaki when they wanted to revive the franchise in TV special form. He had the stylistic flair and directing prowess to make a Lupin III film that was satisfying as a film.
Dezaki's Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is cinematic in a way that most of the later TV specials I've seen aren't. It's adult in atmosphere without taking itself seriously, as Lupin III should be, and it segues between action sequences and drama in a way that's stylish and believable. Each of the main characters shine and communicate their unique personalities. Jigen and Goemon have their own vignettes, and you come away feeling like you understand their personalities and motivations. Goemon especially gets a lot of play and his character comes through very nicely. The atmosphere is romantic and moody in a classy way at the right moments, with jazz, cigarette smoke and city lights, while the action sequences are excitingly directed through clever and artistic staging despite not being fluidly animated and choreographed like the Telecom action sequences.
Dezaki was an auteur with brilliant instinct for how to string together scenes in a way that was both entertaining and full of artistic flair. Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is sprinkled here and there with personal trademarks that you can see in most of his productions like harmony, back-lighting and triple-takes, but it's more subtle and under wraps here than in many other productions. It doesn't feel like he's showing off stylistically. Harmony is the thing where an animated image suddenly turns into a painted image. You see this in almost every Dezaki production. It's done by sending the last cel in a shot to the art department and having them add painted touches directly onto the cel to give it a more hand-drawn and painterly feeling.
An example of Osamu Dezaki's 'harmony' effect
The action scene early on where the baddies kill Jigen's friend and then Jigen shoots one of them and he falls into the river is a textbook example of Dezaki's unique genius for directing of action sequences in a way that is visually beautiful as well as cleverly choreographed. During the climactic last few seconds, diegetic sound is replaced by the sound of a subway train passing in the background, and the bad guy with a bullet in his shoulder falls backwards in slow motion towards an image of the train passing that suddenly disappears with a splash as it turns out to have been the reflection of the train passing by above in the river. Dezaki's action sequences are exciting to watch because he always comes up with clever and artistic ways of presenting actions by a mix of unexpected cutting and framing, sound design and art, rather than just presenting a sequence of naturalistically staged shots.
Osamu Dezaki's creative visual presentation
The second Lupin III TV series established a trend for outlandishly improbable and unrealistic escapades and action sequences. While these were quite fun to watch, it felt like Lupin lite in a way. Without being grounded in reality, Lupin loses a lot of its impact. Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is nice because the action sequences all feel grounded. That in turn creates tension that makes the scenes exciting to watch. The recent special called The Last Job was extremely unpleasant to watch because its action sequences were so over-the-top and unbelievable. They completely ignored physics and turned the characters into meaningless symbols flying all over the screen. There was no sense of imminent danger. Lupin could do anything he wanted, when he wanted. The Lupin of Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is bounded by the rules of physics and gravity, and his action sequences have tension because of it.
It's not just the action sequences where realistic touches make the film more believable. Cars are arguably one of the most important elements of the Lupin III franchise. The defining trait of the show - what set it apart - was how they drew the cars realistically, based on actual models. That was completely abandoned in The Last Job, which was also unpleasant to see. Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is filled with beautifully drawn cars, including an awesome Cadillac Deville that's lovingly drawn in every shot. All of the shots of the cars in this film, even the ones that aren't moving, are a pleasure to watch.
What's Lupin III without some beautifully drawn cars?
One of my favorite parts in the whole film is the scene where the Cadillac Deville taxi drives through the Nevada desert, kicking up a cloud of dust as it swerves around in a 180. It's impressive how realistic the images are in this scene, from the rendering of the car to the camera lens to the dust cloud that obscures the image momentarily. The scene where the enemy cars parachute in later on and start attacking the Lupin gang with guns installed under the chassis is also really well drawn. There's one shot of Lupin running with the kid on his back mixed into this sequence that stands out as having a nice feeling in the timing. Jigen has an awesome moment when he shoots the missile and is blown back by the explosion. This whole sequence is well executed in terms of the animation and the directing. It's a great Lupin III action sequence. The early scene with Lupin driving around the snowplow is also well done. Even Jigen's magnum is lovingly drawn in many shots, down to the "Smith & Wesson" insignia.
The character drawings are also among my favorite in the whole franchise. Noboru Furuse is the character designer and animation director, and I think he did an excellent job putting his own spin on the characters while keeping true to the spirit of the original. The faces are long, the chins dimpled, the hands big and hairy, but it doesn't go as far as Yuzo Aoki in the third series. The characters remain cute and appealing. Best of all, their animation is very lively and supple. The many guest characters are all nicely designed and a pleasure to watch in movement. The slender-faced baddie character especially is nice to watch. It feels like Noboru Furuse's spin on the lanky character designs of Mystery of Mamo, which probably remains my favorite rendering of the characters in the franchise. The opening scene where Zenigata and Lupin wrestle in the elevator shows off the character designs well, with the well-timed animation as their lanky limbs tangle in the cramped space, and the way Lupin's face stretches impishly.
Even the women like Fujiko and Goemon's love interest are lovely and sexy in a way that's in the spirit of Lupin III - bodaceous and foxy in a classy, stylized way. The women in recent Lupin III aren't sultry and sexy the way they used to be, even though sometimes they're better drawn. I prefer the way the women were drawn in the old Lupin III shows because they were stylized in a way that was sexy and beautiful without trying to be pedantically realistic about it. Today's animators don't seem to be as good at appealing stylization as in the old days. Too many animators nowadays seem to default to the same homogeneous drawing style.
The film had a lot of talented animators working on it, which accounts for why so much of the movement and drawings throughout the film are such a pleasure to watch. Talented animators in the credits include Jiro Kanai, Hiroyuki Morita, Masatsugu Arakawa, Osamu Tanabe, Seiji Muta and Kazuyoshi Takeuchi. It's interesting to note the presence of Osamu Tanabe in particular, as he's not associated with this kind of material anymore. Also present is Takahiko Shobu of Studio Iruka, who did a lot of work on the third series a few years earlier.
There was one section in particular that I really liked in terms of the animation. It's the sequence where Zenigata steps off the train with the kid and sits on the bench. There's something about the drawings and movement here that's like none of the other sequences in the film. It's quite clear what it is: It's Akira-esque. It's got a Takashi Nakamura inflection. The shot where the guy gesticulates with his hands makes it obvious. The hands are clearly the product of working under Takashi Nakamura. You only see this kind of gesticulation animation in the years following Akira. Seiji Muta and Jiro Kanai are the two animators in the credits who worked on Akira, so I wonder if it was one of them. Seiji Muta went on to become a regular in the specials.
Whoever it was who animated this sequence appears to have inserted two animator cameos into it: Someone wearing Yasuo Otsuka's trademark driver cap steps off the train before Zenigata (I think it's tradition to have a Yasuo Otsuka reference in each film), and director Osamu Dezaki himself passes behind disguised Lupin as he's gesticulating. That's something I miss about the old days. Animators had more freedom to insert little jokes here and there into their sequences. Many anime nowadays are so straightlaced that they have no tolerance for this kind of playfulness. Animators used to play around and have fun drawing bystanders when they were given a crowd scene. Nowadays the faces in crowds are boring because they're so professionally lacking in idiosyncrasy.
Another great Lupin post! I haven’t gotten to watch the first few TV specials, but from what I have seen, I like the way they resemble the Mamo designs more than any of the later ones.
I did see one of Dezaki’s specials– the 1995 “Harimao’s Treasure” one. That one had much less interesting designs though. I immediately recognized your description of his harmony effect though, as that was one of the more distinctive things I remembered about the special.
I’m really enjoying this series of Lupin posts. I just re-watched the 1985 Gold of Babylon film after you mentioned Yuzo Aoki’s involvement in it, and the pink jacket series. I was amazed by how much pure Aoki action there is in that movie, I’m planning on doing a post on my blog about it with some screenshots, or maybe even GIFs.
Ah, I wish I knew where to get these movies from. Anime stores in my country are next to non-existant.