Lupin the Third is a cultural institution in Japan, but you’d be hard pressed to find many American audiences who know it, apart from anime die-hards and maybe those who have dived deep into the filmography of Hayao Miyazaki. But the name can strike fear into the hearts of (fictional) police and affection in the hearts of many Japanese audiences, who have grown up with the long-running heist franchise centering around a charismatic master thief.
Created by Monkey Punch in 1967, Arsène Lupin III was introduced as the grandson of Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief of Maurice Leblanc’s series of novels. But as a product of the ’60s, Lupin III was daring, sexy, smug, and a little bit silly — a mix of James Bond and Casanova. Monkey Punch’s manga character would take off in popularity, spawning a franchise that spanned anime, video games, and feature films both animated and live-action. But there was one medium that Lupin the Third hadn’t dominated yet: 3D animation.
Enter filmmaker Takashi Yamazaki, the director of dramas like Always: Sunset on Third Street who would make the leap to CG animation and become on of Japan’s foremost directors in 3D-CG. With the blessing of Monkey Punch, who expressed a wish to see his creation in 3D before he passed in April last year, Yamazaki breathed three dimensions into the 2D character with his upcoming film Lupin III: The First.
Lupin III: The First is the first theatrical Lupin release in 24 years, and the first to hit U.S. theaters since Miyazaki’s 1979 debut film The Castle of Cagliostro. The pressure was on for Yamazaki to not only deliver the first 3D take on an iconic Japanese character, but to live up to a classic film directed by a Japanese anime titan. Yamazaki actually takes inspiration from The Castle of Cagliostro — from its globe-trotting scale, its nostalgic themes, and its dynamic capers — which was the first film that made him understand “what anime can do.”
I has the opportunity to speak with Yamazaki for /Film, and we talked about his unenviable task of bringing the character into 3D and the inspirations he brought to Lupin III: The First.
You are one of Japan’s leading directors in 3D-CG animation, with films like Dragon Quest and Stand By Me Doraemon bringing anime into 3D. But because Lupin III has a very specific art style created by Monkey Punch, was there a different process or approach you had to take to adapt Lupin III?
Lupin is a property that I’ve watched since I was a kid, so when I was asked to do work on this project, I was really fascinated and really excited. I wanted to do a Lupin movie. And, you know, since I’m not a to hand drawn animation director, I really didn’t think that I would be able to direct Lupin unless it was CG so I really just jumped on this opportunity to work on it. And, actually, Monkey Punch, he was really understanding of the technique and art of CG films so he was actually looking forward to how it was coming out and it’s really too bad that he passed away right before the release. But he was also excited too.
The film is dedicated to Monkey Punch, who had expressed the wish to see Lupin III brought to 3D-CG before he passed away. Did you feel pressure bringing Monkey Punch’s vision to 3D animation?
I didn’t really feel pressure, but I was really conscious of making sure that Lupin looked like Lupin when he turned into CG. Not just about but all the characters, I really wanted to make sure that once we made him into a 3D model, all the fans would not say, or even Monkey Punch would not say, “Oh, that doesn’t look like him.” So, not just for Monkey Punch but for everyone in the world collectively, I was really conscious of making sure to keep the characteristics.
What specific characteristics did you think were particularly important to retain during that adaptation process?
I really adapted to the looks, like the facial features. Because we’re [adapting] flat 2D into 3D, we really just had to make small adjustments here and there when modeling the characters. Another thing is their expressions, right? So we put the old Lupin images side by side with what we’re creating, to make sure that even if we had to break a lot of rules in the usual modeling process, we wanted to make sure that he expressed his facial features really well. We had legendary animators who worked on Lupin before or are still working on Lupin, we had them check to see if it was Lupin-like and made small adjustments based on that.
Although Lupin III is very popular in Japan, it’s probably best known to American audiences by Hayao Miyazaki’s 1979 movie The Castle of Cagliostro. Your film takes inspiration from Castle of Cagliostro as well, in its themes and locales. What is it about Castle of Cagliostro that remains so appealing and made you decide to draw inspiration from it?
I actually didn’t watch [Cagliostro] in theaters. It was actually not doing well in theaters in Japan at the time, so I didn’t think highly of the movie. When I saw it on TV I was really just casually watching it… But then, once I started watching it, it was so good. Towards the end of the movie I was sitting up on my knees, watching it intensely at the end. And that was actually the first film that I first found out about Mr. Miyazaki. At the time I really had more respect for Hollywood films — it was in the 80s, so like Spielberg etc. But then watching Miyazaki’s Lupin, I realized, “Oh, you know what, in Japan, we could make high quality films too in animation.” So I really understood what anime can do.
You’ve stated that other inspirations in your film include James Bond and Indiana Jones. But there is also a similarity to Steven Spielberg’s CG adaptation of Tintin, which pushed the boundaries for 3D-animated action. What are the advantages of 3D-CG for these kind of big action sequences?
What I did with Lupin was not something that I could normally do in Japan in live action, but it’s not like I was like trying to do different things just because this is CG. I was really thinking about what I wanted to do with the film if I were to work on Lupin. So, you know, let’s say I was born in America, and I was able to work on this movie [in Hollywood]. I would use the same concept of what I would be doing: I would create the set, I would create the setting, I would take the characters around the world. So I wasn’t necessarily thinking of pushing the borders because I have the CG project on my hands, because I think when you try to be so flashy and acrobatic, the movie just loses its appeal and the audience won’t really like it. I filmed it that normally like I would if I were to do a Hollywood film.
For those unfamiliar with Lupin III, what would you like to say to them to encourage them to see your film?
Okay, let’s see, that’s a pretty hard question. Even though they’re thieves, that they’re really fun, and they do a lot of good. You know, usually thieves are seen as bad guys but then they’re actually very human, and you know this movie is about how a little girl who has no freedom. But these thieves help her out. I think that’s what I’d like to tell them.
This interview was conducted through a translator. It has been edited for clarity.
Lupin III: The First will be released in theaters by GKIDs on October 18 (Dub) and October 21 (Sub). You can buy tickets at LupinIIITheFirst.com. The home video releases will follow soon after with Lupin III: The First hitting Digital on December 15, 2020 followed by Steelbook, Blu-ray and DVD releases on January 12, 2021.
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