The Lupin III franchise is Japan’s answer to both the James Bond and Pink Panther series. Created by manga-ka Monkey Punch (AKA Kazuhiko Katō) in 1967 (the same year You Only Live Twice premiered at the box office, which I highly doubt is a coincidence), the series stars Arsène Lupin III, supposed grandson of Maurice Leblanc’s Edwardian gentleman-thief Arsène Lupin, an id-driven not-so-gentlemanly thief who is always one step ahead of the bumbling Inspector Zenigata. The original manga has spawned multiple TV shows, an annual series of TV specials, and several anime and live-action films (some of which have been helmed by Hayao Miyazaki). Lupin III is, without a doubt, my favorite Japanese character.
The most recent television series in the franchise was 2012’s Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine, an anime concentrating on Lupin III’s femme fatale, the eponymous Fujiko Mine. The series was a prequel that aimed to recapture the libidinousness and darker humor of Monkey Punch’s original manga in much the same way that Casino Royale (2006) and the subsequent James Bond films with Daniel Craig recaptured the dark and brutal undercurrents of Ian Fleming’s original Bond novels. A Woman Called Fujiko Mine was the first Lupin III series to be centered on one of Lupin’s supporting cast and the first to be written and directed by women.
The latter point is important because Fujiko Mine is a very, very exploitative series celebrating a character created as an exercise in exploitation. Fujiko herself began as a nameless, recurring character design that was applied to every woman Lupin tangled with, rather than an actual character with a name and personality of her own. The name she was quickly given is a play on “Mount Fuji” and a Japanese word for “breasts.” The character is frequently disrobed in even the family-friendly Miyazaki contributions to the Lupin III franchise. A Woman Called Fujiko Mine features the most overt sexualizing of the character yet, with her appearing completely nude (except for high-heeled shoes) throughout the opening credits, and gratuitous nudity throughout the series.
[It might surprise some readers to discover I enjoy the Lupin III franchise. I have, after all, objected in the past to the overly-sexualized covers to the genre Companion books for Savage Worlds and I’m a known feminist and ally to the LGBT community. The fact of the matter is that life is complex; what is appropriate to one situation may not apply in another. A role-playing game that is attempting to sell itself to a wider audience should refrain from such titillation, but I’m fine with it if you want to be a game about busty barbarians in leather G-strings and own up to it. I like Frazetta,too, dudes.]
This exploitation of the title character is, however, made deliberately problematic throughout Fujiko Mine. In defiance of decades of characterization as a cunning, confident rival to Lupin, the Fujiko of A Woman Called Fujiko Mine is given a new back story as a haunted, sometimes hysterical survivor of sexual abuse, flaunting her body in a desperate attempt to control her swirling emotions. I could almost admire the psychological realism of the scenario and almost praise the focus on a survivor trying to write her own narrative, if it wasn’t for the fact that adding this psychological baggage actually reduces Fujiko Mine from Lupin III’s equal into a victim. While many, many Lupin III stories have involved Lupin rescuing Fujiko, she’s never seemed so vulnerable before. It almost ruined my enjoyment of the series.
(Here’s the REALLY BIG SPOILER!)
It’s all a fake-out.
The memories and the traumas are all false, implanted by another (admittedly terribly traumatized) person who is trying to live vicariously through Fujiko. The sexual aggressiveness, self-empowerment, and even ruthlessness that made Fujiko Mine so much fun for so many years are revealed to be the real her; the doubt, hysteria, and trauma are fake. After making the audience worry for 12 episodes that the brassy, joyful character they’ve enjoyed so long has been reduced to a mixed-up mess, the creators pull back the curtain and say “Just kidding!”
I hate twist endings, but I love Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine.
(I just wish they’d gotten Yuji Ohno to do the score.)