Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy

For those of you not into anime and manga, Lupin III has been, since the late 1960s, one of the most well-loved series in Japanese culture. It follows the exploits of the grandson of the great French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin as he pulls off heists and tries to pick up chicks, all the while accompanied by his friends Jigen, a marksman, and Goemon, a samurai; his on-again off-again lover, the not-exactly-loyal Fujiko; and the intrepid Inspector Zenigata from Interpol, who's always hot on Lupin’s heels. I got into the show the way I got into most of the anime I watch—though the good ol’ days of Adult Swim when it was shown in the wee hours of the morning. I tried to read the original manga, but had trouble getting into it because I wasn’t comfortable with it’s level of sexism. But the anime is no more offensive than the average James Bond movie, and is a very clever action-comedy. I’m glad I had the foresight to set my VCR to record all 26 episodes AS aired, because , unfortunately, all the North American DVD and video* releases seem to have gone out of print.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out the only live-action Lupin III movie ever made, 1974’s Lupin III: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy is actually available on Region 1 DVD, and that I could even get it from Netflix.

The film is, essentially, Lupin III’s origin story. Or one of them, I should say, as both the manga and anime have conflicting versions of it as well. Here Lupin first teams up with Jigen, falls in love with and is double-crossed by Fujiko, and comes to the attention of Zenigata. The only one missing is Goemon, who in both canon versions, was a later addition to the Lupin gang. His omission, then, is understandable, though nevertheless disappointing.

Strange Psychokinetic Strategy is a lot different from the manga and first (Green Jacket) anime series, though closer in tone to the second (Red Jacket) series which was broadcast on Adult Swim. However, it tends to focus a bit more on slapstick over action than the series did. It is good slapstick, though, which makes the film something of a Japanese version of the Pink Panther movies Blake Edwards was making at the time. In fact, though a lot of fans complain about the “cartoony” nature of the film, it’s what I liked best about it. Among other things, we see Lupin literally leap out of his pants in his eagerness to see Fujiko, rewind and play back in slow motion the film in order to show a thug how he knocked him out, and get serenaded by a group of girl assassins out to kill him. (Only Lupin would cop a feel while getting his ass kicked.) The film operates by the same logic of cartoons—disregarding the laws of physics and the fourth wall whenever possible, which I found incredibly refreshing. In a world where CGI Garfields, Chipmunks, and Smurfs can star alongside real people and act like live-action characters, it’s a nice change to see live-action characters literally behaving like cartoon characters.

However, a little of the focus on being silly should have been moved to the plot, which was thin and episodic. And while the actors playing Lupin and Fujiko were spot-on and cute in their scenes together, the ones playing Jigen and Zenigata seemed a bit out of character. Jigen seemed a bit more hot-headed than usual, though, to be fair, I base this mainly on the English dubs I’ve seen. I don’t know how the character is portrayed in the original Japanese versions. Zenigata, is, of course, always going to be the comic relief, but here they took it to the extreme. With the addition of his two bumbling assistants, he seems more like the Pink Panther’s Chief Inspector Dreyfuss, cast jokes and all. Finally, the subtitles, while far from awful, translate the dialogue well, but seem to be missing some cultural nuances.

*The feature films and direct-to-video releases still seem to be available. The critically acclaimed The Castle of Cagliostro, in fact, is very accessible; it currently streams on Netflix.

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