Generally speaking, I'm not a big anime buff. Out of the handful that have won me over, Lupin the Third has wormed its way deepest into my heart. So I'm surprised that it still hasn't entered the mainstream in the United States, despite enjoying a popularity in Japan for nearly five decades that rivals that of James Bond elsewhere.
Lupin's most well-known adventures internationally are probably Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro (Special Edition), an action-packed but largely G-rated romp from Hayao Miyazaki, and the 1977 - 1980 anime series, a zany Saturday morning type of cartoon known by most fans as the "red jacket series." There's nothing Saturday morning or G-rated about the character's latest series, but it's arguably the best thing to happen to the franchise since Miyazaki's 1979 entry.
This is a darker, edgier reboot in the current trend, taking a more adult, character-focused approach to the series. It reimagines the first meeting of master thief Lupin III, allegedly the grandson of Maurice Lablanc's Arsene Lupin, sharp-shooter Daisuke Jigen, and swordsman Goemon Ishikawa XIII, through a different point of view; this time, the focal character is femme fatale Fujiko Mine, a popular character who, in most recent specials, has been shrunken to a supporting role. Here, she's presented as the series' lead. Sayo Yamamoto is the first female director to helm a Lupin series. It seems all the franchise needed was a woman's touch.
This one definitely isn't for the kids. The opening titles alone are almost filled with enough nudity to make series creator Monkey Punch blush. Fujiko isn't shy about going unclothed, particularly throughout the first couple of episodes. That said, I'd hesitate to call it "fan service", as the term brings to mind usually-innocent characters going to a beach to model skimpy swimsuits or other such improbable situations. Fujiko Mine is a classic femme fatale who uses her body as the deadliest weapons in her arsenal. Her nudity services the character, not just the fans.
The Woman Called Fujiko Mine manages to strip each of the five classic leads down to just the qualities that make them cool. Lupin, boasting the green jacket from his first anime and Cagliostro, is still a goofball with a flair for the dramatic, but the new series paints him more realistically, making him more eccentric than plain cartoonish. Jigen is as cool as ever, with a new backstory that explains his attachment to his iconic weapon. Goemon is a surprise stand-out. While stories throughout the franchise that have centered on the character have traditionally been among the weakest, this version keeps the elements that work for the character and jettison the ones that never quite have. For the first time, this Lupin anime had me wanting to see more Goemon.
Fujiko Mine in the original manga wasn't a consistent character so much as a name applied to most of the women Lupin and his gang encountered. Here, she's the main character, something proven when Lupin himself sits three of the thirteen episodes out. Different episodes focus on different sides of Fujiko, competing with the others for loot or simply observing their adventures.
The most interesting character reboot might be Lupin's nemesis, Inspector Zenigata. Often portrayed as a bumbling cop, this version of Zenigata is more hard-boiled, willing to stop at nothing to catch Lupin. He has a tryst with Fujiko and doesn't seem overly concerned with bringing Lupin in alive. He's also given an androgynous subordinate named Oscar, who goes from merely being Zenigata's shadow to becoming a major player in the series' events, with an agenda of his own. Not every episode is concerned with shoe-horning all the major players into the plot, so each has a chance to shine.
While darker and edgier, there's still plenty of Lupin's trademark humor. Even when Zenigata is trying to draw blood, his cat-and-mouse game with Lupin feels as much like a Bugs Bunny cartoon as it ever has, and Lupin's love of pranks is still very much in play.
The unique art style really makes this series stand out. While the pencil work and cross-hatching are reminiscent of Monkey Punch's original manga, to say the art style is pulled directly from the source is to sell character designer Takeshi Koike short. The art style's unlike anything I've seen in any anime or Western animation, and, for the most part, the animation itself is smooth, making even some of the wackier movements look fluid and natural. The score is also worth mentioning, with Naruyoshi Kikuchi's electric jazz suffering only in comparison to Yuji Ohno's long established themes.
Interestingly, while the episodes are divided almost evenly between the two included DVD's, the Blu-Ray separates the episodes at the point when the series moves from mostly stand-alone capers with overarching motifs in the background to a central plot which attempts to tie all the loose threads together. While these episodes are still watchable and don't go completely off the rails, the episodes on the first disc, which most closely follow the classic Lupin formula, are far more enjoyable.
Funimation's release includes both the original Japanese audio and an English dub. This is good news for those who prefer reading subtitles, as they get solid voice performances from seyiuu with varying degrees of experience with the characters; most impressively, Kiyoshi Kobayashi has been voicing Jigen for a solid forty years, since the original anime. There's good news for dub fans as well, as Funimation's cast does the series justice. Sonny Strait does a wonderful job voicing a more smart aleck-y Lupin, while Christopher R. Sabat's naturally gravelly voice is perfect for Jigen. Among Funimation's usual players, Mike McFarland's Goemon doesn't fare as well, but is still serviceable, and an improvement over his performance as the character in earlier Funimation dubs.
For several Lupin fans, myself included, the definitive English voices are the cast of the Geneon dubs of the 1977 - 1980 series, so it's a real treat that voices from those dubs round out the cast. Richard Epcar, Geneon's Jigen, voices Zenigata here, playing the character like a film noir lead, adding to his new hard-boiled feel. The most critical casting is Fujiko herself. Michelle Ruff is the only English voice I've ever fully accepted for the character, and it's a thrill to hear her reprise the role.
Special features include commentaries and interviews with the Funimation dub cast. While these are fun, and the voice actors have the chemistry you'd expect from Lupin and his gang, they also demonstrate how removed dubbing is from the complete project, with the cast members stating several times that they have yet to see the complete episodes and sharing some dubious Lupin trivia.
Overall, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is a unique and memorable series that I'd say is worth a look for anyone, anime fan or not, Lupin III fan or not.