The Miyazaki name helped earn The Castle of Cagliostro a bit of a foothold, but the long-running "Lupin" series is pretty under-the-radar in the United States -- some fans of that movie may not be aware that there are three TV series, seven additional movies, and over 20 TV specials featuring the character. Naturally, the series has reached the "reboot" stage over there, which takes the form of "Lupin the III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine." This 13-episode series takes a fresh look at the slinky love interest of the Lupin character, shifting her into the spotlight and Lupin himself down to the role of supporting character. The show also amps up the sexuality and violence, and alters the art design, all in the hopes of being more faithful to the original manga by Monkey Punch.
Although I am one of those Americans not entirely well-versed in "Lupin" history, it seems that the brazen sexuality and focus on a female character are the driving focus of this new incarnation. In addition, women were the driving creative force behind-the-scenes: Sayo Yamamoto directed, and Mari Okada was the show's head writer. Yamamoto and Okada's approach starts out seemingly episodic but quickly reveals itself as a serialized narrative that eventually takes over as the focus of the series. Fujiko (Miyuki Sawashiro) is a master of disguise, leaping into any kind of situation with a new professional history and personality in order to make off with some type of treasure. On most of her journeys, she is pursued by Lupin the III (Kanichi Kurita), another master thief who prefers stealthiness to ruthlessness, and who is attracted to Fujiko from the moment he first sees her. As the two globe-trot in search of wealth and professional challenges, Fujiko is tormented by strange memories, highlighted by humanoid owl creatures who loom over her in childhood flashbacks.
Visually, "Fujiko Mine" is a refreshing departure from bland, assembly-line, digital-age animation with a terrible personality-to-effort ratio. Yamamoto goes with big, dramatic angles; extreme lighting choices; vibrant colors; and elaborate sequences full of crowds and scenery and detail. As with many other modern shows, "Fujiko Mine" also occasionally integrates computer generated imagery into the 2-dimensional art style, but it is surprisingly minimal, and only increases the dynamic nature of the shots. I wouldn't necessarily call "Fujiko Mine" an "action" show -- this isn't really about fights or chases, even when there are some of those -- but even so, the direction is lively and energetic, and the compositions are eye-catching. Yamamoto also gets extra-creative with a number of haunting, David Lynch-like sequences relating to Fujiko's childhood memories, which are bathed in an other-worldly purple. I wasn't expecting the show to be psychologically trippy, but these sequences are wonderfully unsettling thanks to the art and direction.
Story-wise, however, the show is a bit more disjointed. The first six or so episodes do focus on Fujiko, but what they have to say about her isn't particularly interesting. She's supposed to be a great thief, but Lupin consistently and repeatedly outclasses her, foiling her plans at every opportunity for his own amusement. There's nothing wrong with this in theory, but for a show that's supposedly about this lady thief, she's rarely triumphant. Worse, as the show shifts into the second half, in which more is unveiled about Fujiko's past, the show manages to lose focus on her. There are at least a couple of episodes where Fujiko isn't even present, lying in a bed somewhere having a crisis of confidence the viewer is not privy to, or playing what feels like second fiddle to Lupin the III unraveling her history. In terms of the actual storytelling, the show functions, and at least one of the episodes that downplays her role ("The Lady and the Samurai", which introduces Goemon) is excellent, but there's a distinct sense that something is missing when the supporting characters start to take over.
In terms of that vaunted sexuality, most of the nudity ends up feeling more like it's meant to appeal to the average male anime viewer than really exploring Fujiko's character. In one episode, the samurai Goemon (Daisuke Namikawa) slashes her clothing away to prove she's not hiding a concealed weapon. In another, Fujiko pretends to be a teacher at an academy for girls, and at least one of her students makes out with her. Not all of the moments are sketchy -- a scene where she casually wears nothing but a gaudy gold belt she's stolen in front of Lupin is more about her intimidating him, but the series certainly falls short of breaking down any barriers. On the other hand, the show does some interesting things with sexuality, especially concerning a young police officer named Oscar (Yûki Kaji), and the show is never outright skeevy or gross.
Funimation delivers "Fujiko Mine" in a thick, durable cardboard slip-sleeve with some very nice "montage"-like artwork wrapped around it that highlights the characters. On the back, a sheet with a plot summary and other info is simply placed up against the box -- not even any rubber cement, which makes it easy to remove. Inside the case are two standard, eco-friendly 2-disc Blu-Ray cases containing the two Blu-Ray discs and two DVD copies, both featuring additional, complementary designs of the slinky title character lying down, complete with interior art that identifies the episodes (just a large caption, not episode summaries). No booklet or insert is included.
Note: There are two versions of this set. In retailer art, one has a blue banner advertising that it is a combo pack across the top, and the other doesn't. Mine does not, but I can't tell the difference between the two sets, and I am not positive which one I received.
The Video and Audio
"The Woman Called Fujiko Mine" is presented by Funimation in a 1.78:1 1080p AVC presentation that looks flawless as far as I can see. The nature of hand-drawn animation leaves a little softness in the image, but I much prefer the organic look of this series to other overly-clean, overly-digital anime series I've seen. Mostly, I was on the lookout for banding, aliasing, and compression artifacts, but I did not spot any in this very clean image. This is a little odd, considering Disc 1 of the set contains not only the first nine episodes, but also the entire commentary episode as a separate file, but if there were errors, they evaded me.
The audio is a bit underwhelming in comparison. The original Japanese language track is only presented in Dolby TrueHD 2.0, which robs this action-oriented show of some of the dynamic surround opportunities that it ought to have. Switching back and forth during the first episode, for instance, which opens with an explosion in a crowded room, really emphasizes how much flatter and contained the 2.0 mix is in comparison to the TrueHD 5.1 English dub. I'm sure at least half, if not the majority of anime viewers (and film viewers in general) are in agreement with me that it's really only the original language that matters (and a sample of this dub makes it sound just as awkward as any other dub), so this is a disappointment. English subtitles are included, which reflect the original audio and not the dub.
Funimation has produced a reasonably substantial but somewhat awkward package of supplemental features for "Fujiko Mine." Obviously, the American studio has access to the American end of the production, but...I guess to see a bunch of extras produced by people who only worked on one aspect of an otherwise finished show without any subtitled extras from across the sea strikes me as weird. Then again, I suppose any extras is better than no extras.
Two episode commentaries are included on Disc 1. Episode 6 features co-ADR directors Brina Palencia and voice actor Josh Grelle, and the second track features Christopher Sabat and voice actor Sonny Strait. Again, these folks are all veterans of the voice acting business, enthusiastic about the show, and mostly knowledgeable about the history of "Lupin." Still, they can come off like fan tracks -- "what was it like seeing this for the first time?"
On Disc 2, all the extras are video-based. "'Lupin the III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine' Cast Reunion" (26:34, HD) gathers Richard Epcar, Mike McFarland, Michelle Ruff, Strait, and Sabat, who talk about their history with the franchise (Epcar has played every character except Fujiko and Lupin). Although this lands in the same territory as the commentaries, this focuses more on voice acting and serves as a bit of a history lesson. If you're interested in voice acting, this will become a bit more valuable. "'Fujiko Mine' at OkraTron 5000" (5:46, HD) sounds like it'll be a panel, but it's actually another voice acting extra, spotlighting the recording studio where the English dub was recorded. It's also sort of a one-on-one interview with Ruff, talking about Fujiko (her secret: a hint of Marilyn Monroe).
The disc wraps up with textless opening and closing credits (HD). Trailers for "Eden of the East" (Disc 1) and "Black Lagoon: Robert's Blood Trail" (Disc 2) play before the main menu(s), and a gallery of additional trailers ("Eureka Seven AO", "Guilty Crown", "Appleseed XIII", "Trigun", "El Cazador de la Bruja", "Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt", the "Remnant Knights" video game, and Funimation.com is also available on the special features menu of the second disc. A U.S. trailer for "Fujiko Mine" is also included.
I'm not sure "Lupin the III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine" is as fresh or invigorating a take on the franchise as it hopes to be -- it's certainly not groundbreaking otherwise. However, it is a well-directed, visually stunning, and mostly entertaining series. Although the extras on Funimation's box set are disappointingly geared toward the American post-production process, this is still a show worthy of a recommendation to fans and non-fans alike.
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