Saturday, July 7, 2012

Your Spring '12 Anime Survivor Champion!

This is no secret, so I'll just come out and say it. Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Apollon) was the real winner to this season's introductory Anime Survivor. I purposely left it out of the equation, because I felt the variable was too obvious. Judging by the first episode and its staff, it was going to be the last show standing, not matter how good or bad Spring 2012 turned out to be.

However, I was also quite skeptical about the rest of the lineup. Would we all still have our faces buried in Bodacious Space Pirates, Fate/Zero and Phi Brain? Would we all be bitter about the dormant Winter 2012 performance?

Suffice to say, this season failed to disappoint me, and that in itself was a bit of a beautiful disappointment.

Now that the season's over, it's time to see what made Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine so damned good.

Selling Points: I'll be honest in saying that I have not seen enough Lupin the Third animation in my lifetime to make an educated judgment as to where Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine sits in the hierarchy. I can say with confidence that it cannot hold a candle to the likes of movie versions directed by Sôji Yoshikawa (Mystery of Mamo) and Hayao Miyazaki (Castle of Cagliostro), but I've also found myself disappointed by a good number of the made-for-TV specials. Until I see all of the three TV series installations, I'll have to reserve my judgment in those sorts of comparisons.

However, I did see the Episode 0: First Contact 2002 TV movie, which really made me wonder at the time if we would ever get a solid start to the Lupin the Third franchise. There had to be a better beginning and a reason behind the gang getting together, and after watching all 13 episodes of this Fujiko-centric show, I'm happy with it. Happy enough to leap out of my clothes and swim towards it.

Fujiko Mine starts like many Lupin the Third shows, our green-jacketed anti-hero stumbling upon a religious cult harboring a hallucinogenic drug ring. Getting deeper into the stronghold, Lupin meets the incognito Fujiko, who is running her own racket by masquerading as the cult leader's bride-to-be. Before Inspector Zenigata and his assistant Oscar can arrest either, both make their traditional outrageous escapes, with Lupin surfing a giant statue to safety.

As our story progresses, Fujiko's manipulative charm collides with the personalities of the other characters—Lupin's wolfish desires, Jigen's quiet trust in any job he takes, and Goemon's loyalty and bashful modesty appear to be no match. Even Zenigata caves—the inspector scores with Fujiko long before Lupin can! However, every treasure comes with a connection, and each appear to trigger nightmarish memories in Fujiko, each connected to owl-faced stooges watching the show from afar.

How are they—the players, the drugs, the heroes and villains—all connected to each other? I certainly don't want to spoil everything, but it's been some time since a show managed to be both episodic and intricately-weaved in its storytelling.

Defending (the other shows): There are some points of the Fujiko Mine show that occasionally made me question if it would last until the end of the season. There is no doubt that the staff knows its appeal, as every episode contains at least one shot of Fujiko's breasts (two if you count the opening theme, which is both confounding and catering to the raging-hormone audience). If this were a lesser show such as Manyû Hikenchô or To-Love-Ru, we would be torching them for their lack of dignity. For Fujiko, unashamed nudity is what defines her and even makes her a bit more tragic, but at times it's just too much.

The animation is also a part of the show that takes some adjustment. This isn't the style of Lupin we're used to, as the cartoonish expressions from Secret of Mamo and the brighter color of Castle of Castliostro are nowhere to be found. While comedy flares up in spots, this is a dark show with many line-driven shadows lurking about. At other times, the animation appears choppy, but in all likelihood, this is exactly what director Sayo Yamamoto (Michiko et Hatchin) and character designer Takeshi Koike (Redline) were shooting for.

Final Decision: In the end, the Fujiko Mine animation had such a wonderful storyline constructed around characters we've grown to love that it was hard to turn it down as each episode unfolded. At the moment, I'm uncertain if I want to remember Fujiko as a tormented soul (played by the universally-talented Miyuki Sawashiro), Lupin as a steely joker, and Zenigata as a hard-boiled Japanese version of Shaft, but the characters are perfect in the manner that they feel each other out without letting their future personalities out until the end.

Most importantly, I found Oscar to be one of the most intriguing characters I've ever seen in a Lupin show. Tortured by his past as a child and his future as Zenigata's right-hand man, his hatred for Fujiko drives him to astounding lengths that cloud his judgment as a law-abiding official. His drift between gender roles haphazardly drives him to madness, which brings us to a question at the end...what happened to him? (Let's hope there are plans for him in a future medium.)

In general, Fujiko Mine was a first-class adventure that occupied no particular time or place. The individual episodes became a tapestry as past events became relevant to the Owls' ultimate plan. By the end of the story, all of the loopholes (sans Oscar) were wrapped up well and failed to destroy any past stories. The technology could place the story in the future, while the allusions to the Cuban Missile Crisis could place the story in the past. Even the eye-catches were terrific, each frame a portrait of the characters.

Speaking of portraits, I dare wonder if we saw the closest that an anime TV series has gotten to actual art. DaVinci, Dali, Van Gogh...and Monkey Punch? Why not? You may laugh at the idea of Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine being hung up with the Mona Lisa and The Scream, but if this show was a feature at the Louvre, I'd bust out my own green jacket to steal this work of art from society.

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