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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Category: Lupin III

Monday, December 15, 2014

05:39:00 pm , 1092 words, 36217 views     Categories: Movie, Lupin III, Studio: Telecom, Studio: Tokyo Movie

Daisuke Jigen's Gravestone

The news came out a few months back that Tomonaga Kazuhide heads a new Lupin III TV series starting this spring. The show seems poised to be a return to the sensibility of Cagliostro-era Lupin, with its breathless car chases, lighthearted atmosphere, good-guy Lupin and caper-centric stories. Visually, too, as the Japanese like to word it, it's monkey-headed Lupin (Fuma Clan) rather than horse-head Lupin (Part III).

Acting as a kind of bridge between the Takeshi Koike-designed Fujiko Mine TV show of a few years back and the upcoming reboot is a recent movie entitled Daisuke Jigen's Gravestone. In two 30-minute parts, it feels less like a movie and more like an OVA, or two gussied up TV episodes. The story feels lifted straight out of the second TV series in sensibility. It feels much closer to the Lupin of old than Fujiko Mine, feeling like a lead-in to the upcoming TV series, yet finally does justice to Takeshi Koike's unique interpretation of the characters thanks to some truly excellent animation quality, which the previous TV show was lacking due presumably to bad scheduling.

Telecom handles the animation, so it can be assumed to be a preview of what's to come from the TV series, in terms of the animation if not the designs. It's an odd pairing: Takeshi Koike and Telecom. But it works great. We finally get to see Koike's designs animated properly. I'm not sure what happened between Fujiko Mine and this movie in terms of Takeshi Koike's involvement, but it feels like he wanted to make this movie so that he could vindicate himself and show how his Lupin should have looked. Because here he's involved full-bore, in classic Koike style, handling character design, storyboarding, directing and even sakkaning (with no assistance).

The animation pops thanks to some very talented folks, both in-house and outside animators. Hisao Yokobori and Kazuhide Tomonaga head the animator list as the star in-house animators, while presumably Takeshi Koike brought in folks like Takefumi Hori, Kanako Maru, Satoru Utsunomiya, Hiroshi Shimizu, Kenichi Shimizu and Toshiaki Hontani. I was surprised to see such faces in a Telecom production, but I hope that the upcoming TV show will continue to use talented outsiders, because otherwise I don't see how they can fill the show with good animation just with in-house staff.

The car action in episode 1 was spectacular, if slightly different in feeling from the classic car chases. Takeshi Koike's genius shines through in this spot, whereas otherwise the show felt pretty restrained for him - less him showboating than doing the material justice. The Telecom chases favored long shots regaling you with characters plowing through scenery, whereas here it's all fast cutting and dynamic camera angles. It would be pretty cool if Tomonaga Kazuhide animated a car chase storyboarded by Takeshi Koike. I couldn't identify who did what, except for Satoru Utsunomiya's scene, but the whole episode felt tight animation-wise, with Takeshi Koike's drawings filling in the more quiet scenes nicely. Incidentally, great to see Satoru Utsunomiya. He always seems on the verge of disappearing and then shows up in some random show. Hard to believe that in the 10 years since I started this blog he never had an opportunity to helm a big project. But that goes for a lot of talented people (e.g. Yasuhiro Aoki)...

In sensibility the two episodes felt like they could have been taken straight out of the early Lupin (perhaps why the new jacket is a color that seems midway between blue and green), from the way Fujiko shows up and interacts with the Lupin gang to the combination of assassin bad guy and international intrigue and fanciful spy tech. The bad guy assembling the gun was animated in loving detail as befitting classic Lupin, and Lupin's car this time around was different from any before but also a charming but punchy mid-range classic car - the Alfa Romeo GTV? The only thing that felt a little uncomfortably weird and closer to Fujiko in spirit was the bizarro sexbot scene with Fujiko scampering around completely naked avoiding an enormous drillbit penis. It's like they want to have the sex aspect in the show, but they've divorced it from the character of Lupin and pinned it on the bad guys. The juvenile bit between Lupin and Fujiko on the motorcycle captured Monkey Punch's jokey attitude towards matters sexual, but even then it still feels toned down, albeit still farther than they'd go in the early shows.

The scriptwriter Yuuya Takahashi did a good job recreating the spirit of the old Lupin, although his experience predominantly as a mystery screenplay writer comes through in the somewhat excessively expository denouement, which consists of about 10 minutes straight of 'tane-akashi' explanation. Even the way it was obvious that there's no way Jigen was dead felt true to the transparent ploys of early Lupin. My favorite bit in the movie may have been the part where Lupin walks off screen from his table and then, after a pause, drops some coins on the table. Now that's the classy wit I like to see in Lupin. I liked the Broadway joke - perhaps it's a stretch to imagine this as a reference to the Yoshio Urasawa Broadway series in red jacket Lupin. Also true to old Lupin is the fact that there's no unnecessary killing. Even the assassin gets off with just a shot to the arm. And the Lupin gang comes away empty-handed save for the satisfaction of having done the right thing according to their rules.

The only problem was the complete omission of Goemon and Zenigata. Is it because they didn't know whether to go with the new personalities or the old? Or to save the trouble of writing them into the story? Seems a bit lazy. They even credited Zenigata's voice actor in the credits even though he doesn't have any role, much less dialogue.

SPOILERS: But the ultimate kicker of the movie was the last sequence, which had my jaw dropped. Is this setting things up for Mamo to be a player in the TV series? Or just a treat for fans of the first movie? (considered by many to be the best of the bunch) It seems a bit capricious and random to be the latter, so I'm guessing the former. I can't get enough of Mamo, so I'm all for more. But if you bring Mamo back, come on, you've got to bring back either Yuzo Aoki or Yoshio Kabashima, or preferably both. You want to see a grown man beg?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

04:41:00 pm , 1921 words, 32690 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.

Monday, July 2, 2012

04:28:00 pm , 709 words, 4308 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #12

The second-to-last episode begins the descent to the climax on the roller-coaster ride that has been Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Appropriately, this episode takes place in a creepy abandoned amusement park, with an extended action scene on a roller-coaster. Fujiko and Zenigata embark on a not-so-fun ride through a funhouse that plays out like a sick version of Disney's It's a Small World ride (the holiday season display in particular appears to have been directly copied), replete with creepy children's choirs, replaying through imaginatively twisted imagery the disturbing history of Fujiko.

The episode is full of reveals and explanations, without quite making everything clear. Some things we could piece together without being told: Fujiko tried to kill the tattoo girl because she was being controlled by someone else, as Fujiko had been, and Fujiko wanted to 'kill her own past'. Others are news to me: The experimental drug research was not limited to Fujiko but also involved kidnapping little girls the world over. Fujiko gives Zenigata the key to linking a recent string of disappearances around the world. All the players are present in the same episode for the first time - Lupin, Goemon, Jigen, Zenigata and Fujiko. My problem with the show is that it doesn't really have a story; it just teases you for 10 episodes and then tells you what happened at the end, rather than providing a story that unfolds throughout the show.

I appreciate that the show is attempting to create a heady and edgy mixture of blunt sexuality, dark imagery and psychological drama aimed at adult viewers, and it's great to have a show that is at least attempting to do something sophisticated and smart in anime. It's one of the few Lupin shows that is genuinely for adults. But something that turns me off about it is the way the show rubs your face in the anguish, cruelty and masochism, for example the gag about the doll that screams 'More!' as it's being shot, rather than being a little more subtle about it.

The strange thing about the story to me is that, even as they're revealing things gradually, and you begin to understand the pieces of the puzzle, it's still hard to make sense of it in your head. It remains a blur, rather than feeling like it at comes into focus. It feels like needlessly confusing and jumbled storytelling.

When Jigen comments that this whole thing has nothing to do with him, and asks why he has to be involved, Lupin comments that he and Jigen are nothing but unwitting cast members pulled into the story of Fujiko Mine. Meaning to say, all of the later stories would not exist if it weren't for this story of Fujiko.

The episode is satisfying due to the storyboard by Yokoyama Akitoshi, which makes the rather jumbled storytelling clear while watching, and switches seamlessly between drama, action and visual storytelling. I particularly liked some of the background drawings like the drawing of the mansion pictured above. Perhaps they had reference material, but if not, it's an impressively creative design. The whole funhouse scene had a lot of nice visuals. It was a clever way of representing Fujiko's history, with the three stages of Fujiko's growth from infancy to adolescence to adulthood embodied by the different dolls of the funhouse. Overall the episode created a dense narrative texture that is impressive for being so layered. The scene with the tickets was pretty funny.

The animation was slightly stronger than usual, but still uneven. There were several surprise faces - Masaaki Yuasa and Hiroyuki Imaishi and other talented names like Osamu Nabeshima, Hiroshi Shimizu and Yoshio Mizumura. There was even Hirotoshi Takaya as one of the four co-sakkans under the four sakkans. On top of having no less than 8 sakkans, there was a slew of seconds, showing that right down to the end it was a battle. Imaishi's scene was patently obvious - falling into the water - as was Yuasa's - the dolls with huge boobs. Lupin running down the building reminded a bit of the scene in Cagliostro where Lupin runs vertically down a wall to save Clarissa as she's falling. The whole scene on the roller coaster prior to Imaishi's scene was also pretty nice.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

03:01:00 pm , 662 words, 6306 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #11

Fujiko goes on a spree impersonating Lupin, Lupin cuts himself shaving, and Oscar dreams of wedding dresses. That, and lots and lots of owl men.

This episode is devoted to exploring Oscar's character with a story about how he impersonates Fujiko in an attempt to get Zenigata to try to kill Fujiko. Why he has a vendetta against the "spitpot" I'm not exactly sure, other than that she slept with his heartthrob Zenigata. A little bit of back story is finally revealed about the relationship between Oscar and Zenigata, but it feels like too little too late. The character remains just as annoying and misplaced as before, with his overplayed melodramatic screaming and shouting that don't make any sense and ridiculous costume that doesn't look like a regulation police uniform to me. (high heels?) The writers may be telling a very deep and powerful story through Oscar and Fujiko, but it's too bad they forgot to let us in on what it is.

It feels completely arbitrary how one of the side-characters will without fail be absent. This time Goemon and Lupin were there so Jigen had to be absent even though he and Lupin seemed to have formed a pretty close relationship already by the time of the previous episodes. Goemon's and Lupin's scenes were reminiscent of the old show, with Goemon going around splitting things and Lupin defusing a bomb, and wound up being the parts of the episode that were the most fun to watch, which is to say the least annoying. The shot where Goemon buys a falafel right before Lupin does the same was fun, reminding that they still haven't met each other. The odd thing is that Fujiko doesn't play a very big part in her own show. She's either absent or zoned out and doesn't do anything a lot of the time other than have flashbacks.

They're obviously trying to do something very postmodern with the schtick about the owl-men observing Fujiko as if they were the author of a story observing the character whose story they were writing, but it is done so repetitively without any clear meaning that it just comes across as a pretentious attempt to be artsy and sophisticated. Scenes such as the infant Fujiko being electroshocked in a room full of stuffed animals are clearly meant to, well, shock, but they occur over and over without us understanding the context, so they have no impact other than to seem like self-indulgence for shock effect on the part of the writers.

The episode was fairly competently directed and interesting otherwise, even with a cute little section done in Michel Ocelot cutout style explaining how Oscar planned to steal the wedding dress. Whoever storyboarded and directed the episode decided to use a silly pen name, so I don't know who it was. The storyboarder was 袋小路ピーチク and the co-director was 梟小路パーチク, which is a pun that's hard to translate, but basically involves cul de sac, owl, and the onomotopoeia for a bird's chirping - which is an obvious reference to the line in the episode where Oscar sits down on the stairs in despair when cornered by the owl men and asks them, "Go on, chirp away!" Clearly this suggests the point of this episode - about exploring how Oscar came to feel cornered.

The episode also featured another person using a pen name, Hiromichi Kojinanokuni, which is Tomonori Kogawa of all people. He has apparently gotten a second wind after an extended period away from the front lines and now does lots of animation on various TV shows using pen names. I'm curious what part he did, although I'm sure his style is nothing like what it used to be during the days of Ideon and Xabungle.

Another person present was Kaichiro Terada, whom I presume animated the water effects during the bridge scene at the beginning and the smoke effects during the tiara scene. I like his effects work. Motohashi Hideyuki was again present.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

10:36:00 pm , 894 words, 5924 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #10

"The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk" - Hegel

Philosophical musings and trippy imagery are the order of the day in this episode, which is a mindf*** and a half. This episode is also the best in the series so far in my opinion. Too many of the previous episodes have been either side-stories which although fun seemed merely to be biding time, or else hobbled by weak directing or animation. This episode didn't have fantastic animation per se, but it felt strong overall in every respect - directing, script and animation - and most saliently, it finally did what this series should have done a lot sooner, and that's dig into the meat of the show's hinted-at running story.

After so many coy hints in previous episodes, this time clear revelations are made about what the deal is with the owl-men and Fujiko's flashbacks. It's still impossible to piece everything together clearly, but for the first time in the series you come away feeling like what you're seeing makes sense - not in terms of the story, which is still unfolding, but in terms of the show's identity. The show didn't seem to know who it was much of the time. I feel they waited to long to tip us in on the very basic premise of the show. Instead of doing 9 meandering episodes with little progress in the main story save hints in flashbacks, the whole series should have been devoted the main story. It feels like in this episode, for the first time, they've created an episode squarely focused on the main story of this series, and done it in a way that's entertaining rather than merely clumsily artsy.

This episode was difficult to penetrate, but also undeniably brilliant and engrossing. I think it's the most cleverly and methodically constructed episode so far. The script and directing work in sync to create a labyrinth of the mind in which you never know what is real and what is imagined, all while the back story gradually comes into light. The episode teases you about what is real and what is imagined, and how to piece together the confusing information and strange images you're presented, much as Lupin doesn't know whether he's finally woken up to reality or is still dreaming yet another dream within a dream. Your expectations are constantly upturned, and the truth is hidden somewhere within the haze.

The script courtesy of Dai Sato is dense and full of literary allusions and quotes and foreign words and witticisms. The storyboard is by Yoshimitsu Ohashi. Ohashi has had a long and prolific career directing and animating dating back to Nadia of the Blue Water. Most recently he directed Sacred Seven. He was also character designer and chief animation director of one of my favorite anime, Green Legend Ran.

Ohashi's storyboard does a fantastic job putting Dai Sato's script into dramatic form and playing off the allusions and hidden meanings in the script. Every moment seems to drip significance both visually and verbally in a complex cross-hatching. A butterfly drifting across the screen at a certain moment echoes something in the script on the tip of our understanding. The episode has many striking images such as the candyland of the infant Fujiko, Lupin transpierced by an owl, and the actual photos of flowers that litter the episode. (Mixing in live action bits at significant moments is a tactic used previously in Kemonozume.)

With its references to arcane literary, philosophical and mythological figures and foreign words from Minerva and Glaucos to Hegel and memento mori and Fr?ulein Eule, this episode is ripe for analysis. It downright begs the audience to (try to) deconstruct its various hidden meanings. There's also a fascinating repetition of images and words throughout the episodes, such as the butterfly that appears at various moments, and the repetition of the word Fr?ulein Eule. It's a great script and impressive in a different way from Dai Sato's already impressive script for episode 7, showing Sato Dai's versatility.

At a more basic level, it was nice to see Lupin finally given a big role, and the interaction with Zenigata was satisfying, especially the surprise moment where right as they're facing one another off, they're attacked and wind up having to join forces. The only disappointment is that none of the other side-characters were present. It seems to be policy in this series that only two or so of the main characters are present in each episode, never the whole gang together.

Incidentally, in terms of the animation, there's one lovely bit of animation at the point I mentioned above where the masked men leap up from the flowers and blast away at Zenigata and Lupin with machine guns. I assume this must have been animated by Shin Itagaki. I wish the whole show moved like that scene. Other notable animators in the episode included Hideyuki Motohashi and Kenichi Shima. Kenichi Shima is a youngish animator about whom I don't know much other than that he was involved in Tatami Galaxy, Redline and Brave Story - as well as this cool little vid with music by Satoshi Murai. He just seems like an animator worth keeping an eye on for some reason. (What a coincidence I singled him out - I just noticed he is the animation director of the next Fujiko episode.)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

04:23:00 pm , 680 words, 9576 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #9

Lupin and Jigen save a mute tattooed girl from the inexplicable wrath of a possessed Fujiko as the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. They're in no rush to disclose the gimmick too quickly, though, and we don't learn much new information in this episode aside from seeing just how deeply disturbed and disturbing a character Fujiko is in this version, seemingly driven mad by her inner demons. The script even makes a joke about how slow the revelation is coming, when Jigen, voicing the audience's impatience, asks Lupin to confess what he knows about Fujiko, but Lupin rejoinders tauntingly in the voice of the writers, "I'm not going to give it away that easily."

Aside from more of the same disturbing flashback sequences, I fairly enjoyed this episode. The whole episode proceeded in the form of an extended action sequence that was fairly well paced and choreographed and entertaining to watch. The production values remained stolid at best, but were probably above average for this series.

Lupin and Jigen got a lot of screentime and exchanged entertaining banter. The dynamic felt good, like in the old Lupin. Their behavior and actions also brought alive their personalities well. The sequence at the beginning with a disheartened Jigen trying and failing to win a prize at the shooting gallery was funny in the spirit of the old Lupin, and the story about the freak show actually being a pretense for a secret auction reminded of a similar setup in an episode in the first series. Not to mention there were several smuggled goods auction plots in the second series. The script was written by main writer Mari Okada.

The only odd thing about the episode was Fujiko, unsurprisingly, who behaved like a bizarre stone-faced zombie the whole time, like a sexy Terminator out to kill the girl for some unknown reason. We never even find out why in the end. The trauma of some kind of sexual or physical assault is hinted to underpin her personality in this show, a serious subject that sits uncomfortably beside the old Lupin gang antics.

The storyboarder was Yoshitomo Yonetani. He's a veteran from the 1980s who started out at Toei and did a lot of work for Shin-Ei, but I'm not very familiar with his work. I haven't seen almost any of his work until this, but in looking him up I read that one of the recurring motifs in his work is foreigners speaking bad Japanese, and what do you know, there are foreigners speaking bad Japanese in this episode. There isn't really any narrative need for that scene to have been there, so it's obviously his trademark that he wanted to insert. Kind of a lame trademark, if you ask me. I like how he managed to create fairly interesting action throughout the episode. The action scene on the gondola was pretty nice. It's a great idea for an action scene. It's just that the scene lacks tension for some reason, perhaps because he didn't process his own storyboard, or because the animation of those scenes isn't very dynamic. I particularly liked how during the chase at the onsen in the second half Lupin is constantly making wisecracks and pulling faces, never taking it all seriously. Also, the avant jazz music complemented this scene very well.

There was one bit of animation that caught my eye. It's where the movement suddenly turns to ones in slo-mo as Lupin, Jigen and the girl run away from Fujiko in the room. It was strangely out of place and unexpected, although Yonetani did storyboard much of the action in this episode using slo-mos. That seems to be his style. Their run down the corridor right afterwards also had a nice feeling to the timing. Yonetani even inserted one more joke about gaijins in Japan during this chase, as the group leaps into a room where a gaijin is dancing with a geisha. This guy really has a weird obsession with making fun of gaijins in Japan. Which I can't really fault him.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

10:45:00 pm , 725 words, 10855 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #8

There goes my punctual schedule of blogging this series each week. But I'm not going to give up like I did on Denno Coil. I'm going to catch up. There's not much left to go anyway.

The story this time is about a fortune-teller who supposedly can predict the date of a person's death. There have been a few fortune-teller stories in the old shows, and the main character here is a little reminiscent of Pycal from episode 2 of the first show, the famous foe whose magic powers were the product of technological trickery. The nice thing about this episode is that it's a fairly intriguing story, and it manages to involve Lupin and Jigen in addition to Fujiko. I wouldn't say I exactly loved the episode - it was a little slow and the quality was typically low - but at least it was written in a way that forces you to pay close attention.

The thing I liked about this episode is that Lupin was Lupin-like, with his Monkey Delivery Service rescue of Jigen, disguise, comical cooking scene (his gnocci didn't look very appetizing), and the way he sees right through the fortune-teller's tricks and describes various ways of killing someone on a foretold date. Also, starting with this episode Lupin and Jigen seem to begin to warm to each other and develop into their familiar odd couple relationship.

The story was not bad, but I found the script a little confusing. Even after watching it a second time knowing what was about to happen, I was still lost. There were a lot of oblique references to plot points the audience has no way of knowing as of yet, obviously meant to prompt speculation. It feels like they went a little too far into the ellipsis. The scriptwriter is Junji Nishimura, who has been a director all his career. It seems he started writing scripts in the last few years. It's not a bad script, it's just really challenging to follow, partly because so much of what's mentioned you have no way of knowing.

Beginning with this episode, the show is finally bringing the back-story into focus. Only hints have been dropped here and there so far in the flashbacks about what exactly went on in Fujiko's past, but this episode finally reveals the name of the mysterious owl-man character who seems to have done something unwholesome to Fujiko when she was a little girl, and hints at a complicated web of control and manipulation involving the fortune-teller, Fujiko, Lupin and the owl-man. This Fujiko back-story seems to be the whole point of the show, so it feels weird to me that they only drop hints about it stammeringly for 3/4 of the series rather than diving right into it, and finally begin actual storytelling just a few episodes from the ending.

I like that Fujiko has been decisively given a refreshingly more complex personality. She's not an easy character to read. The problem is I find the directing of her personality a little erratic and inconsistent. I think they need to be prepared to follow things through with elaborate detailing of the intricacies of her thought process if they're going to bother to do a radical overhaul. It feels to me like they're skimping on the difficult character writing pretending that they're just being stylish and subtle about it. If Fujiko is to be perfectly OK with cold-bloodedly shooting the guards in the face when there probably wasn't any need for her to do so, which is obviously pretty shocking, then her personality has to have been elaborated in a way that her doing so makes sense. As it is, that scene just comes out of the blue, and passes without any comment by the directing. Even Jigen says he doesn't want to have to pull the trigger unless absolutely necessary. I got a similar feeling of confusion when Oscar, a police officer, casually menaces to kill one of the other officers in an early episode, and the directing treats this as if that were completely normal and acceptable.

The animation was as weak as usual. Sadly, it's clear that a low level of animation is the norm for this series. They must really have had no schedule for this show. At this rate, we'll be lucky if we get one more really well-animated episode.

Friday, May 18, 2012

11:49:00 pm , 880 words, 10353 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #7

Despite mediocre animation and barely functional directing, this was a good episode due to the clever script by Dai Sato. I'd even go so far as to say this is the best episode yet due to the script. I was wondering what had happened with the previous Dai Sato episode, which was a boring trifle, but the man shows that he is still a master with this episode.

Lupin III was a product of the cold war, with its James Bond-inspired sexy spy action and intrigue, and this episode tells an alternative version of one of the pivotal events of the cold war, the Cuban Missile Crisis, complete with Kennedy, Castro and Khruschev lookalikes in analogous roles.

The episode is true to the spirit of the old Lupin III while being smarter and packing much more of a sting. With the old shows I often felt like they were never quite reaching the full potential of the material. When not about bank heists, the stories were often inspired by the real-life geopolitics, but more often than not the satire was blunted in favor of coy and facile slapstick. The writing was never smart or edgy enough.

Dai Sato here writes exactly the kind of story I wished I could have seen in the old shows. I wonder if he might not have been inspired by the recent spate of revolutionary biographical films like The Motorcycle Diaries and Carlos. Without glorifying the revolutionary, he casts a somewhat cynical eye on all the parties. He has the Castro stand-in drop a reference to a Japanese revolutionary who was his inspiration, presumably in reference to the late 19th century revolutionary and leader of the Shinsengumi Toshizo Hijikata, so that Japan winds up retroactively laying claim to the revolution. Classic subversive Dai Sato. Don't forget that Japan had its own red revolutionaries in the 60s with the Asama Sanso Jiken. Too bad he was unable to work in some reference to that.

The story is a bit needlessly convoluted, with several confusing time shifts to explain how Fujiko and Goemon got involved, but the story is full of smart touches and keeps you on the edge of your seat with its recreation of the tension of the Cuban missile crisis.

The revolutionary figure at the head of the story at one point is greeted by a chanting crowd, prompting Fujiko to call him a "rock star", which feels like a commentary on how pop culture today has turned onetime revolutionaries like Che Guevara into nothing more than empty icons on t-shirts. Fujiko asks him what his real motivation is - world revolution or merely the thrill of causing chaos - and his ambiguous answer that he just wants to keep dancing is satisfying for having a human ring rather than sounding like pat propaganda.

Fujiko comments on the hidden motivations of geopolitics of the cold war and beyond in the more cynical and informed voice of a denizen of the post-2000 era when she remarks that the reason for all the interest in the revolution on a puny Caribbean country isn't ideology but rumored oil reserves. The comment clearly is meant to evoke Iraq and inspire a healthy skeptical view of history.

Fujiko plays a fascinating combination of roles here, a regular Cassandra representing in a single individual the conflicting hidden currents of the powers at work behind the scenes. Journalist covering the Cuban revolution on the surface, she was in fact hired to assassinate the pseudo Castro, as we know the US attempted to do, while underneath she has her own motivations that remain tantalizingly murky to the end. This may very well be one of Fujiko's best roles ever.

The only disappointment is that none of the other cast members except Goemon play a role, and Goemon's role is a bit thin and underdeveloped. He seems to have been cast only so that he could serve in the climax. The absence of Lupin and Jigen seems to confirm this - they weren't needed for this story. The climax is admittedly quite brilliant in true Sato Dai fashion. It's the craziest and most fitting thing imaginable for a samurai cutting the missiles in half to solve something as insane as the Cuban missile crisis.

The drawings were weak. There isn't much good to be said about the animation. At some points the drawings were downright bad. Castro's hand was bigger than his head in one of the early shots, and in several other places the animators were clearly having difficulty rendering the character designs. That would have been less of an issue had the sakkans had more schedule to correct the drawings. Koike may draw cool characters, but clearly drawing cool characters is different from good character design, if the object of character design is to facilitate drawing by the range of drawing skill levels likely to be encountered by a given production.

At the very end Fujiko yet again bares her inhumanly firm tits for seemingly no reason whatsoever, which seems symptomatic of why the nudity bothers me - not because I don't like nudity as much as the next guy, but because it just doesn't make any sense and seems thrown in for no reason but to meet some kind of tit quota per episode.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

09:57:00 pm , 837 words, 6910 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #6

Don't watch this episode with grandma.

Episode 5 was an anomaly in this show - a straightforward but cleverly written caper unfolding through dynamic action, in the spirit of the old Lupin III. That's not what this show is really about. Episode 6 is what this show is really about. To my eyes, this episode is the most dense expression yet of the show's purpose.

It's doing the show a disservice to simply view it as a prequel. It's something different from that. It seems to me a deeply revisionist outing that aims to undermine the male-centric sensibility of the old franchise.

The name of the show was the first provocation. For the 40th anniversary of Lupin III, they scored the sly coup of dethroning the protagonist right in his glory moment in the guise of a side-story about one of the sub-characters, in the process reversing the dynamics of the old show and making the erstwhile protagonists an afterthought, as Fujiko was often treated.

Fujiko, despite being depicted as a cunning foe in the old show, was basically the product of a male gaze in terms of her visual rendering and sexual meaning. The remarkable thing about the new show is that, despite Fujiko being naked much of the time, she isn't erotic. I'm almost reminded of the anti-eroticism of the nude scene in Godard's Contempt. The nudity doesn't come across as titillating. Fujiko seems to feel contempt for anyone who would lust after her. Despite the prevalence of mammaries, the show will be of little 'practical use' to fans of Seikon no Quaser. The nude drawings are pleasing for not being fan-servicey in the traditional sense, not the lust-filled products of male fantasy. The drawings (and spirit of the show) remind me of Kazuko Nakamura's curvy, feminine, de-eroticized Cleopatra.

They have chutzpah, and I have to hand it to them for that, at least. It almost seems to be missing the point to complain that the characters are too different, there isn't enough action, the animation isn't good enough, though I can't deny that those are the first things that spring to my mind while watching this show, since it's the early Lupin III that made me a fan of this show, and this is essentially a different beast altogether. It seems like a different audience.

As for this episode, it's basically Lupin III via Brother, Dear Brother, with its bizarre girls' school in which apparently every girl has a lesbian crush on their teacher - which in turn reminded me why I couldn't get past episode 1 of that show. Instead of a male fantasy, now it's a female fantasy, and I'm not sure it's much of an improvement. I just didn't find the episode particularly interesting or entertaining. All of the characters were ridiculous to me, especially Oscar (a nod to Rose of Versailles?).

The episode was written by Mari Okada and storyboarded/directed by Shoko Nakamura, so it's a thoroughly female gaze episode. You know it's girly when they call in Tadashi Hiramatsu, who presumably did the scene near the end that refreshingly had some sprightly drawings/movement for once.

We've been seeing flashbacks to Fujiko's childhood for a while now, usually drawn in a bizarro byzantine style, and there was a particularly bizarro one this time around, with Fujiko eating mice while owl men experiment on her, interspersed with borderline illegibly florid Gothic type-on-steroids doggerel and avant garde background noise. The flashbacks seem to be building towards a revelation of some new sexual, druggy, disturbing vision of Fujiko's childhood.

There was a curious moment where they reference the famous line near the end of Cagliostro where Zenigata says to Clarissa that Lupin has stolen the worst thing of all... your heart. The suggestion is treated as nothing so much as a joke. Aside from being a playful reference to one of the movies that established the franchise, it seems to poke fun at the naive romanticism of Miyazaki's Lupin to underline how much more rooted in frank sexuality and psychology this series is.

They gleefully revel in the prurient stuff in this episode, with Fujiko deep-tonguing schoolgirls and being doused with wine while strapped naked to a bench, which bothered me less than the pretentiousness and literary affectations of the script. Kemonozume had a much more sexually frank shower love scene that I found quite beautiful, so the sexual material is not what bothers me. If anything, what bothers me is that all of the characters seem sadistic for no good reason, and the script is weirdly eager to devise cruel turns of phrase, i.e. calling Fujiko a "spitpot". A spitpot? Huh? The writing is way overbaked. Belladonna is one of my favorite films, and Borowczyk one of my favorite directors. I wanted to see more adult material in Lupin III, so I find it ironic that I'm disappointed by what I'm seeing. I also found the episode needlessly confusing in terms of the directing. Confusing directing isn't artistic, it's just confusing.

At least the squirrels were funny.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

11:33:00 pm , 1365 words, 5294 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #5

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.

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