Fifty years ago, manga artist Monkey Punch drew up the first issue of what was intended to be a short series to last a couple years. After reading fifteen of Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin stories, Monkey Punch decided to try his hand at his own gentleman thief, updated to the sensibilities of the 1960s, of course. Little did he know that his thief, Lupin III, would become legendary, the animation equivalent of the James Bond franchise that would influence the likes of Disney, PIXAR, DC, and even live-action moviemakers around the world. Whether known as Lupin III, Rupan, Edgar de la Cambriole, or simply The Wolf, the adventures of this gentlemanly scoundrel and his gang have entertained millions, continuing to this day.
Now fifty years worth of adventures makes getting started a daunting question. After all, fifty years of Star Trek has given birth to a tangled mess of a future history spread over countless TV series and movies. However, Lupin III is closer to James Bond in that each individual episode is a stand-alone. After evolving from his start as a Tom and Jerry meets MAD Magazine and Playboy comedic thief into the star of his first TV series, Lupin III–and his gang– have remained essentially unchanged over the years, with different directors emphasizing different aspects of the characters. The basic template, though, remains the same. While Lupin III and his gang are in a city on a heist of their own, they get swept up into the plans of another gang of crooks searching for another treasure. Foiling those crooks requires dodging the law, beating the crooks to the treasure, helping innocents harmed along the way, and utterly ruining the rival’s criminal empire.
Lupin III is (allegedly) the grandson of the famed gentleman thief Arsène Lupin. Sharing the same love of life, adventure, and filthy lucre as his ancestor, Lupin III travels the globe, stealing from the rich. His clownish exterior hides his impressive skills in disguise, observation, pickpocketing, scheming, and gadgetry. It also lets his indulge in occasional fits of lechery, usually aimed at Fujiko, but as a gentleman thief, he doesn’t indulge before the girl shows interest. His façade drops whenever things start to get serious. And if you ever see his trademark smirk, prepare to watch everything you ever worked for crumble around you in ruins.
His gang include Daisuke Jigen, a gruff gunslinger who acts as Lupin’s right hand man and occasional voice of reason, and Goemon Ishikawa XII, a ronin descendant of the legendary thief Goemon Ishikawa, whose samurai skills and honor are second to none. While Jigen is ever-present, usually acting as the gang’s getaway driver in the insane car chases that the series is known for, Goemon comes and goes as he pleases.
Occasional accomplice Fujiko Mine serves as helper or hindrance depending on her whims. An ascended extra, she’s not just drawn that way, she truly is a bad girl, with thievery skills almost to rival Lupin’s. Like many a contemporary heroine from her time, she uses sex appeal and femininity to go where Lupin cannot. Fujiko always plays hard to get, drawing out a mark’s interest for as long as she can manage before stealing and stealing away. Usually in town for a different heist than Lupin’s, Fujiko is inevitably drawn into Lupin’s adventures, usually over the formal protests of Jigen. A master schemer with a distressing habit of getting herself caught, it’s not always clear if her plans fell apart or depended on manipulating Lupin’s assistance. Lupin has a long time flirtation with her. Like many aspects of the series, Fujiko’s hair color, measurements, aversion to clothing, and manipulations tend to shift from director to director, with her portrayal occasionally crossing the line from risqué into pornographic. Interestingly enough, most of the young women serving as Lupin’s love interests tend to be modest and wholesome, unlike his favorite adventuress.
Rounding out the cast is Inspector Zenigata, an international policeman serving as foil and rival to Lupin. Like many in the cast, he is a descendant of a famous ancestor: Heiji Zenigata, the coin-throwing detective of the Edo period. Zenigata, or “Pops” to Lupin, is the only policeman who can manage to occasionally arrest the master thief. At his best, Zenigata is the only true equal to Lupin’s skills, but he does get Flanderized to foolishness often. He is well respected in law enforcement, as his arrest record is exemplary. After all, someone’s got to arrest the crooks Lupin destroys at the end of every adventure. To help facilitate this, a gentleman’s agreement exists between the cop and the crook. There will be no guns used in their eternal chase, just tricks against traps. The two men have even worked together to bring down greater threats. But beware, the quickest way for a criminal to summon Lupin’s wrath is to harm Pops.
Add a unique treasure, an exotic locale, and a rival gang to the mix, and, like the dime-novels that inspired Lupin III, the recipe for a new adventure is complete. If a viewer needs a reminder of who the characters are and what they do in the gang, the opening animations for many of the TV series and movies provide a quick introduction to each character and their role in the upcoming heist.
Over the next few weeks leading up to the 50th anniversary, I’ll take a look at some of the standouts of Lupin III’s long career, from his recent marriage to The Fuma Conpiracy and his very first adventure in the comics. I’ll even take a look at the oddity that is The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. But if you want to test the waters, Cartoon Network’s Toonami is currently showing the forth Lupin III TV series, and, as always, Crunchyroll hosts an extensive selection of Lupin III TV episodes and movies available for streaming.