Lupin’s pulpy origins manage to impress and leave something to be desired
I would say most long-time Lupin the Third fans are aware, at least by reputation, that the source material is a rough and rowdy departure from much of what would follow. Author Kazuhiko “Monkey Punch” Kato’s original comics of a world-famous thief and his cohorts come up as necessary background information in overviews, though often that ends up being about it for the subject. “The main character was originally kind of a psycho rapist” brings the conversation down and can make talking about far more broadly approachable material needlessly complicated when you have to assure someone that’s not really the case for any of animated adaptations. Outside of Tokyopop’s long out of print, canceled midway run of 1977’s New Lupin in the 2000s, Lupin has existed primarily in the West as an animated figure. With Kato’s passing in 2019 came this new collection of stories, pulled from the original 1967 series and New Lupin, to celebrate the creator of an enduring icon of manga and anime. And along with the full-blown Lupin renaissance recently, with multiple new TV series, back catalog titles becoming available, and movies screening theatrically (seeing Cagliostro on a big screen this past summer was a treat), it wasn’t a huge shock to see the collection get picked up for an English release. And now, having dipped my toes into Lupin’s origins for the first time, I’m of mixed feelings.
Greatest Heists is going back in time and seeing scruffy, Stone Age versions of familiar ideas and characterizations. And being able to recognize what survived the test of time and what was left behind is, I think, its most exciting quality. But, unfortunately, I’m left with a “that was it?” lack of enthusiasm towards its dozen chapters. Many are overly simple and feature uneven pacing like setups or sketches for more involved tales to come. Then they unsatisfyingly end in a panel or two. For example, the first appearance of Goemon spends most of its pages on building up the thief attempting to trick his way into the stoic samurai’s good graces to capture the secret recipe of his famous sword, only for a quick duel to rush by. In another chapter, the central mystery of Lupin the Brat’s parentage goes unanswered after he traps Fujiko in a field full of deadly snowmen. I’m also not sure why a quarter of these hand-selected adventures occur in caves.
Perhaps symptoms of the anthology placing chapters out of order, making a discernible flow of stylistic development difficult to follow, or the series’ very nature of brazen disinterest for meaty plotting, but on its own, Greatest Heists was a surprisingly slight read. And while it’s clear the collection is intended to be a taste for new readers, even within individual chapters, it’s a not altogether satisfying sampler platter of cool cars, guns, women, and gadgets. Like Lupin himself, it feels like it is head empty, wildly grasping at cool shiny things just out of reach for the chase alone. Another recent release I’ve been reading, Akira Toriyama’s Manga Theater, stood out as a great example of an older manga collection enhanced by additional editorial framing. Chapters have listed publishing dates, and humorous retrospectives by Toriyama accompany many reflect on their creation, the contemporary response by readers and editors, and how they fit into his broader artistic career. It adds real value and historical context that I wish Greatest Heists included beyond a short essay smack in the middle from the editor about the method behind his choices. Additions by Kato in a book published posthumously obviously asks the impossible, though when the essay only provides light background for the opening chapter, I feel like there was a missed opportunity to bring this material into the present with commentary.
I’m also surprised not to see any content warning or a higher than Teen (13+) rating because it bears mentioning you’re going to see Lupin sexually assaulting Fujiko after just a few pages. Revealed to be puppets not long after, this is not the last instance of sexual violence that is more than a little jarring. When the back cover blurb is quick to connect to the gentler The Castle of Cagliostro and The First without so much as a heads-up, that’s not great. While they’re the most recognizable entries, if you’re looking for better companion material for Greatest Heists, the bawdy, violent atmosphere of The Mystery of Mamo and Takeshi Koike’s gory IIIrd movie series more than provides. Even better brand synergy would note how well it pairs with the first TV series, featuring several direct adaptations of included chapters, currently in the process of a relaunch of sorts in the US with an English dub and upcoming Blu-ray. The faithfully gritty early episodes didn’t go over well with audiences, landing the series in ratings issues, resulting in Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata being called in midway through and putting their own distinct spin on Lupin and the gang. Paired, the two chart an illuminating early history of Lupin’s awkward development as the franchise grew beyond Kato’s sole influence.
It might sound like I’ve entirely written off Greatest Heists, but Lupin has always been more than the sum of its parts for me, and it’s no different here. Kato’s eye for striking artwork that wordlessly announces these characters with a steely look or wild body language and pulling influence from across a broad spectrum is clear—gleefully drawing from James Bond movies, adventure serials, gag comics, literature (the LeBlanc Arsene Lupin connection itself famously being an unsanctioned grab), and more. Kato cast a wide net of interest that ensured, likely unintentionally given the franchise’s longevity, that the gang would have a large playground to frolic in. It hasn’t always worked out; see the many dreary TV specials, but it meant that with a little imagination, future guiding hands weren’t locked into a small creative corner. Jigen’s showdown in a desert with an old acquaintance (the basis of a memorable Part II episode and really one of the two Jigen story molds) oozes a dangerous atmosphere and tension as he has to retrieve parts of his Magnum while under fire. And the gang’s robbery during the Monaco Grand Prix explodes off the page with a fantastically weighty dynamism to the race car action. So many of these pages feel like they should be caked in cigarette ash, stained with liquor splashes, and smell like gunpowder.
Although the writing doesn’t seem particularly interested in fleshing out Jigen, Goemon, or Fujiko, often reducing them background players, there are dozens of images throughout the volume that so perfectly convey these characters’ timeless presences. Goemon unsheathing his sword to dispatch incoming weapons during training across vertical panels running the height of the page has no expiration date. The cool factor here frequently flies right off the charts. Lupin himself is a creature of almost pure chaos, near impossible to pin down to a rigid personality, changing shape from chapter to chapter and fluidly scrambling from page to page. He is a violent avatar of impulse that has been understandably toned down and shaped by various artists over the years, but you can see the many avenues of interpretation Kato opened up here.
Greatest Heists is a solid hardcover in the Classic Collection line of older manga, published by Seven Seas. For the sake of comparison, it sits somewhere between Go Nagai’s Devilman, a major touchstone of pop culture and one still resonant decades later, and Cutie Honey, equal parts crass and dull, best left in the past. So is it worth a look? As an introduction to the world of Lupin, it’s a disappointingly thin experience on its own, weighed down by dated boy’s club attitudes towards women and casual misanthropy. I would say to think twice if you notice it for the first time in a bookstore and wonder what the deal is with all the recent Lupin fuss. The real appeal is narrower than intended; Greatest Heists works best for fans curious about the beginnings of genuinely timeless characters through a historical lens. Monkey Punch wanted to show off wacky thieves going on sexy adventures with little regard for good taste and certainly not what anyone would think 50 years on, and while not all of it holds up, Lupin’s unruly, impossible to catch spirit is alive and well here.
Lupin III: Greatest Heists is available through Seven Seas Entertainment in a single volume