Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Thoughts on Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro

Camouflage isn't flattering on you, Fujiko.

MILD SPOILERS FOR LUPIN III: THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO

Last night, Robin and I went to the Fathom Events special screening of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. It was an amazingly pleasant evening. The theater seats reclined. There were only about three other people there (two women and one man, making women the majority of the audience), and they were all quiet and enrapt; I was probably the loudest person in the theater because I was almost the only person laughing out loud. The movie was, as always, a joy.

I mentioned a couple of posts back that The Castle of Cagliostro is far from my favorite piece of Lupin III animation, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a good movie. It’s obviously a great movie, and probably the best piece of the Lupin III franchise if you’re not someone, like me, who prefers the impulsive, lecherous anti-hero of Monkey Punch’s manga to Miyazaki’s noble rogue.* With that said, my opinion of the film actually went up last night.

I realized shortly into the film that this was the first time I ever watched The Castle of Cagliostro subtitled. I’m not the kind of anime purist who demands subtitles over dubs; in fact, some dubs (Cowboy Bebop being the legendary example) equal or surpass the original Japanese vocal tracks. Since Japanese voice actors record after primary animation is already complete, they’re basically just trying to match their performances to the lip flaps the same way English-language actors do when dubbing anime; it’s not like most western animation where the vocals are recorded first and the animators incorporate the actors’ performances into the cartoon. Despite that, watching the Japanese-language version of Cagliostro was a revelation.

It was, after all, performed by the classic Lupin III red jacket series cast—Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, etc.—and hearing them play the parts largely wiped away most of my objections about mischaracterization. The Streamline and Manga Entertainment casts seemed to go out of their way to instill a weariness, an ennui into Jigen, Fujiko, and (especially) Lupin that the animation and script support but don’t actually require.

Yasuo Yamada’s Lupin III is still the same clownish yet capable rascal he was in the red jacket series and The Mystery of Mamo even when he’s denying himself the chance to live happily ever after with Clarisse or reflecting on his nearly disastrous attempt to break in ten years earlier. Fujiko might look dowdy and warn the princess off of the man she was “maybe lovers” with over a year ago, but with Eiko Masuyama’s voice, she still sounds like a vivacious femme fatale. Kiyoshi Kobayashi’s Jigen is his normal grumpy self—a slightly-older peer of Lupin’s, not the old man the Manga dub turns him into. Yes, there’s an undeniable air of wistfulness throughout the film, but the core cast are still themselves with the Japanese cast voicing them.

(The effect would probably still be the same if Tony Oliver and the rest of the Phuuz cast were playing the roles, but I sincerely doubt anyone’s going to do yet another dub of The Castle of Cagliostro.)

(Also, Zenigata and Goemon come off fine even in the dub versions.)

Other notes:

  • I genuinely got chills when the car chase started and Yuji Ohno’s classic Lupin III theme started playing. I could probably fault Miyazaki for not using the theme more, but that’s probably a reflection of the divide between what I want out of Lupin and what Miyazaki wanted to create.
  • In the context of the late 1970s, it’s interesting to see Miyazaki pivot Fujiko away from being a femme fatale and toward an ass-kicker; within that context, it seems downright liberated to make her more than eye candy. Nearly forty years later, though, it just feels like a wrongheaded attempt to clean up a fascinatingly messy character. Y’know, I think the only adult, sexy woman I’ve ever seen in a Miyazaki film is Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke—the quasi-villain who gets her arm bitten off. I’m not saying Miyazaki has issues, but… (I kid, I kid.)
  • Before the show, they played an introduction by/interview with John Lasseter of Pixar and Disney. He spoke about analyzing every frame of the film, but I don’t know if he’s ever actually listened to it. He pronounces “Lupin” like the flowers Dennis Moore steals in that Monty Python sketch and Cagliostro with a hard “g” instead of the proper silent Italian “g.”
  • The authors of the Wikipedia article identify a number of previous LeBlanc Arsène Lupin works and foreign films that presumably influenced Miyazaki and team, but I binged the original green jacket Lupin III TV series before going to the movies, and it really looks more like Miyazaki self-plagiarized. Episode 10 (“Target the Cash Counterfeiter!”) involves counterfeiters, a clock tower with gigantic gears, and the aristocracy while Episode 11 (“When the Seventh Bridge Falls”) has Lupin saving an innocent maiden from a bad guy who lives in a castle with an entry via boat.
  • After the film, there were interviews with Monkey Punch/Kazuhiko Kato and one of the animators who worked on the film. Monkey Punch’s comments were amusingly polite, saying that he “never gets bored” of watching The Castle of Cagliostro, that it’s his favorite Miyazaki film, and that Miyazaki was important in helping the franchise make the transition from “men’s magazine” manga to family viewing television… before then praising the blue jacket films and show for being the first anime to really capture his own cool and stylish vision of the character. Ha!
  • [EDITED TO ADD] Also, if Miyazaki can get away with Ruritanian romance in 1979, why can't I do the same thing in My Middle Name is Larceny? I've been debating this for a bit. I couldn't get over the idea that the original imaginary Mitteleuropean countries—Ruritania, Graustark, etc.—would presumably be behind the Iron Curtain in 197X, but that didn't stop Hayao Miyazaki. I'd just need to put it in the Alps or the Pyrenees.
*No, scratch that. The Italian Adventure is better.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My Middle Name is Larceny

Text boxes are your best friend for throwing together character sheets.

Just over a month ago, Robin and I realized we just weren’t having that much fun with our Blue Rose AGE duet campaign; despite our mutual sympathies toward the setting and themes, neither of us has actually read any romantic fantasy novels nor has the time to learn the setting that the game demands. We’d also bought a Roku and started up a Crunchyroll subscription, so we were finally watching the 2015 Lupin III series. To my great surprise, Robin suggested starting a Lupintic cat burglar campaign and My Middle Name is Larceny was born.

Some readers of the blog requested additional information about the campaign, but I’m afraid there isn’t that much information to share. I improvise our duet games to such a degree that I often don’t even make notes before a session starts; this has its drawbacks, but we’ve learned from experience that we both get bored if things are too structured. With that stated, I can at least make a bullet point list of highlights.

  • Our heroine, Beverly “Bev” Larceny Slick, is the master thief child of a pair of deceased phantom thieves; she was raised to a life of globetrotting thievery and is an expert in her field. As the protagonists of this kind of fiction—characters like Lupin III, Modesty Blaise, and To Catch a Thief’s Charles Robie—are cinematic-style polymaths, she was created as a Legendary hero with the Pulp Hero Power Point spread from the Super Powers Companion (said points limited to purchasing super attribute, super edge, and super skill). Frankly, I’d recommend this for any duet Savage Worlds campaign; if you spread around skill points to get at least a d6 in most skills, there’s still plenty of room for improvement at Legendary Rank.
  • We’ve been using that Carry Forward hack (not setting rule) I wrote about a couple of posts ago as a way to weaponize intelligence gathering—but with that said, we often go several sessions in a row without rolling dice, just narrating things instead. Dice are for when you want to introduce the element of chance, or enjoy the tactile fun of playing with toys. A game like this where there’s an explicit understanding that the protagonist will overcome and survive physical threats hinges on emotional stakes, and you don’t really need dice for that.
  • The setting is sometime in the 1970s, partially as an homage to Lupin III, partially as an excuse to set some cool funky jazz/rock playing in the background while we game. I have both Damnation Decade and Spirit of ’77, but I haven’t made much use of either, instead largely relying on childhood memories and film and TV of the period. For the most part—like Lupin IIIMy Middle Name is Larceny is more grounded than either of those published settings… except when it’s not, and then it’s more of an homage to Philip Jose Farmer’s sexed-up pulp homages and the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams Batman run.
  • Admittedly, there’s a lot of borrowing from the late ‘60s as well. I’ve joked about it being set in the Funk Age, somewhere vaguely between 1965 and 1975, but it’s mainly the ‘70s.
  • Lots of Dramatic Tasks. They're a nice challenge for Legendary characters and a fun way to simulate the complexity of the obstacles (a safe you can crack with one roll just doesn't seem as cool as one that takes five successes, even if they're both relatively easy for someone so skilled).
  • Ranges in Chases don't need to mean actual physical distance. "Long" and "Medium" range can actually just indicate the amount of cover the target has. I need to do more Chases.
Part of the goal with the campaign is to hit a variety of Funk Age genres, works, and tropes. Some of the adventures have been generated using that Globetrotting Cat Burglar Adventure Generator I posted; others have just emerged spontaneously. The adventures so far have been mashups of:

  • “Killer Queen” + “A Scandal in Belgravia” (yeah, it’s anachronistic, but so is Sherlock) + the X-Men's original Hellfire Club
  • Hammer horror + Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu
  • ‘70s surf and counterculture outlaw movies + yakuza + Code Name: Diamond Head + a proto-A Team
  • Richie Rich + New York real estate mogul + KGB + Xaviera Hollander
  • Diabolik + The Godfather + car chases + Olympic decathletes
  • Invasion of the Bee Girls + Wonder Woman (1974) + Aguirre, the Wrath of God + Rio de Janeiro
  • Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter + Golgo 13 + Battles Without Honor and Humanity + pink eiga   
  • The Pink Panther (1963) + Batman (1966) + hot tubs + scavenger hunts + disco
  • Ra’s al Ghul + Carlos the Jackal + Gaddafi’s terrorist training camps + zombies

I expect Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster will show up eventually, but we’re going to try segueing back towards more grounded, lighthearted adventures after the zombies. Also, a lot of these references are secondhand; it’s not so much that I’ve seen all the films I’ve namedropped so much as I know about their existence and/or have read summaries.


 I tried incorporating Leverage-style score names, but gave up.



Friday, September 15, 2017

Eternal NPCs

Cross-time Lupins converge in Lupin III: Green vs. Red

There’s a recurring NPC in My Middle Name is Larceny (the 1970s-set caper duet campaign I’m running with Robin) called Monkey Mask. He is, bluntly, Lupin III with the serial numbers filed off and a rubber ape mask pulled over his head.

And this is probably the fourth or fifth campaign he’s appeared in.

Like Michael Moorcock with his Eternal Champion, Eternal Companion, and all the rest of his recurring, fractured, fragmented, prism-split characters, I’ve got NPCs who recur in similarly-themed campaigns, especially the 20th/21st-century intrigue settings. Monkey Mask first appeared as the modern incarnation of Journey to the West’s Monkey King in our first duet campaign, more or less set in the Old World of Darkness and using the Land of Eight Million Dreams spin-off from Changeling: The Dreaming. We actually rebooted and restarted that campaign after several months into one powered by Werewolf: The Apocalypse (turning Robin’s character from a nyan hsien into a homebrewed nekomata Bastet), keeping Monkey Mask as a hanuman hsien but adding in expys of the rest of his crew as various other supernatural types.

I believe that second campaign (which was 15 or so years ago) introduced another pair of recurring personas: the Gargoyle and the Rook, my stand-ins for Batman and Robin (the Boy Wonder, not my wife, obviously). I forget the given name I assigned the pseudo-Bruce Wayne, but I know I gave him the last name Wright, playing off a local ambulance chaser named Wayne Wright (and also the name/profession “wainwright,” which I probably picked up from Tolkien). Robert Wright, the retired original Gargoyle, is a background character in My Middle Name is Larceny, while the grown-up original Rook, Hal Graustark, has surfaced in the narrative as a substitute for Adams and O’Neil’s “hairy-chested love god” 1970s Batman (and also Daredevil and Earth-Two Robin at the same time).

I’m pretty sure I’ve used “Grimalkin” as the name for the Catwoman homage before as well, but I’d have to dig through long-buried notebooks to be sure.

I remember for certain that a “Bruce Wayne, Jr.” version of the ‘70s Gargoyle showed up in an earlier ‘70s-set campaign notable for being another case where we basically rebooted Robin’s character. Tamsin Mackenzie began as a Victorian adventuress, but after we got tired of 1890s mores, we skipped ahead to the decade of our birth and reintroduced Tamsin as an immortal secret agent who encountered a mashup of Ken Washio and Tommy Arashikage, an ersatz James Bond, and probably a pseudo-Shang-Chi.

Probably. I’m not sure. I can’t believe I would skip the chance to play with that sandbox. I know a clone of the Master of Kung Fu is lurking around the edges of My Middle Name is Larceny, where he’s known as Huang Feng. In any case, I’m nearly positive Tamsin encountered Monkey Mask.

I don’t really do this as much in other genres. The most frequently recurring character in fantasy games I run is Elaith Craulnobur of the Forgotten Realms, as created by Ed Greenwood and perfected by Elaine Cunningham. His combination of danger and charm makes him a useful substitute for a Lupin III type. Most of the other recurring fantasy characters are more types than Eternal NPCs: the barbarian who is smarter than he looks, the charming evil dragon, the thief who isn’t Lupin III...

An intelligent, sympathetic (and often heroic) Frankenstein’s Monster is the only recurring Victorian character I can think of (inspired years ago by Geof Darrow’s, Steve Skroce’s, and the Wachowskis’ Doc Frankenstein rather than Penny Dreadful) while we don’t play enough sci-fi for me to have developed any recurring NPCs for that genre.

The other most important recurring NPC is my personal multiverse’s version of the Eternal Companion. She doesn’t have the same fixed identity as Monkey Mask, instead transforming as needed to fit the campaign. If I was going to give her a name, I’d call her Kohana after her first occurrence alongside Robin nyan. She usually serves as the protagonist’s friend and confidant, sometimes as a rival in love or a frenemy, occasionally as a friend with benefits. She’s almost always shorter than the heroine, cute rather than beautiful (often in a fuller-figured way), and flirtatious to the point of aggression. This time around, the Kohana-figure is Bev Slick’s English gopher and secretary Angeline Fripp.  

Huh, it never occurred to me before that I accidentally invented my own Etta Candy. Les Daniels’ history of Wonder Woman came out in 2000, so maybe I subconsciously based her on reading that book. Probably not; the original Kohana started as a rival and pest before becoming devoted to Robin’s character, so she was probably an amalgam of various anime characters.

I enjoy playing the various Kohanas almost as much as Monkey Mask, but the two character personas don’t get along in most campaigns. I wonder why that is?

Sean’s Totally Subjective, Under-informed List of His Favorite LupinIII Stuff

As drawn by Monkey Punch (AKA Kazuhiko Kato)

Discussing Lupin III is like discussing the Godzilla or James Bond franchises: everybody has their own take on which parts of the franchise are best, and those opinions are usually formed around which version or actor a person encountered first. I tend to be an outlier in these situations, favoring more recent incarnations because of their sophistication (which, admittedly, is often because they’ve synthesized the nuances of a franchise’s long history); Daniel Craig is my favorite Bond (though Casino Royale is his only really good film) and the Millennium design is my favorite look for Godzilla. I also acknowledge that taste is subjective, so I try to always couch my opinions in the term of “favorite,” not “best.”

Last night saw the first US theatrical showing of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, the beloved feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki. This film was Robin’s and my introduction to the world of Lupin III, rented from the local Hastings back when we were living in San Marcos, TX in 2001-2004. Frankly, it was kind of bewildering; whatever The Castle of Cagliostro’s merits may be as a family-friendly action movie, it makes little attempt to introduce viewers to Fujiko, Goemon, or Inspector Zenigata (which, frankly, wasn’t needed in Japan since they already had the manga, the first two TV shows, and two previous theatrical films).

We skipped last night’s showing to wait and see the subtitled version on September 19th. We can only afford to see one showing and—since The Castle of Cagliostro is not one of my favorite versions of Lupin III—I’d rather see the subtitled version so I can hear Yuji Ohno’s music better.

Yes, that’s right. The Castle of Cagliostro isn’t my favorite Lupin III film—even though it was the first version of the franchise I encountered. It isn’t even in my top 5 favorite aspects of the franchise. Keeping in mind that I still haven’t made my way through all of the clunky green jacket TV series, the lengthy red jacket series, or the off-key pink jacket series*—and that several animated films, OVAs, and specials haven’t been released in the US—here’s my top 5 from what I have read or watched:

  1. The Mystery of Mamo (AKA The Secret of Mamo AKA Lupin vs. the Clone AKA Lupin III)  
    The first Lupin III animated film is undoubtedly my favorite self-contained movie or TV special. I’m one of those people who enjoys Lupin at his most roguish (just as I enjoy Bond at his most bitter); the scene where Mamo examines Lupin’s mind and discovers he’s some sort of idiot savant who thinks about nothing but naked ladies epitomizes why I like this roughhewn, sprawling, psychedelic film more than Miyazaki’s introspective gentleman thief. Also, as a fan of Tony Oliver and the Phuuz Entertainment cast, it’s a joy to hear them really dig into their characters.
  2. The Italian Adventure (AKA Lupin the Third Part Four AKA the blue jacket series)
    As much as I enjoy Lupin behaving badly, I’m not immune to the charms of more genteel versions of the character. Thankfully, with The Italian Adventure, I don’t have to choose. This series from 2015 was made with the intention of synthesizing all the best of the series so far: the original Monkey Punch rambunctiousness, Miyazaki’s poignancy, the red jacket series’ humor, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’s stylishness, and Yuji Ohno’s score. In fact, the only reason this is number two on the list is because the English dub doesn’t have Ohno’s score due to using the original Italian TV version of the show instead of the cleaned-up Japanese version, which means I’m going to have to buy two different versions of the series on home video. Argh.
  3. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine
    As ribald as anything Monkey Punch created in the manga, but bolstered by deeper, weightier characterization, this show comes so close to being my favorite TV series that I almost feel bad awarding that title to the cheerier blue jacket series. Intensely psychosexual and revolutionary in its design sense, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine was almost my least favorite TV show despite its style and heft, as the series makes a play at giving Fujiko Mine a backstory ripped from the worst excesses of Joss Whedon-style “strong female protagonists”—but then it rips away the veil and shows that’s all been a fakeout. If only it had a Yuji Ohno score…
  4. Lupin the Third Part II** (AKA New Lupin III AKA the red jacket series)
    The red jacket series, airing on Adult Swim beginning in 2003, was my proper introduction to Lupin III—just as it was the Japanese public’s proper introduction after the failure of the original green jacket TV series. Cartoony and crazy, alternating wildly between adaptations of manga stories, adult-oriented capers, maudlin kid-friendly episodes, and almost plotless, surrealistic stories that show how the grind of a Japanese anime series can break even the most creative wills, this show remains the benchmark by which all other Lupin anime is judged. It’s not always good by any means, but there are 155 episodes, so that’s to be expected; one of the two episodes I watched this morning sent Lupin to a shockingly white 1970s Harlem where he got totally obsessed over Superman (1978), got bamboozled by a blonde street kid named Chico, wound up in a scene-padding motorcycle chase with Zenigata, and finally ended up in front of a firing squad of decadent millionaires dressed like DC and Marvel superheroes. Nonetheless, the best episodes remain amazingly entertaining, and I’m so fond of Tony Oliver’s Lupin III voice that I’ve incorporated it into my repertoire of game mastering voices.
  5. The original manga
    Like Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, Monkey Punch’s original manga series is raw and direct, the author’s id spilling all over the page. Given my own complicated relationship with my own inner life, I appreciate the darker, weirder, less likable places both book series go. It doesn’t mean I always agree with manga Lupin’s actions, but he lives in such a fourth wall-breaking, self-mocking, MAD magazine-inflected funhouse mirror of spy and heist films that it’s impossible for me to not be entertained. Maybe it’s hypocrisy or even doublethink to enjoy such unreformed adventurism, but I cannot deny how much I enjoy manga Lupin’s self-confidence and competency.

  For the record, here’s a brief rundown of where everything else fits:

  1. Jigen’s Gravestone (I’m sure Goemon Ishikawa’s Spray of Blood will sit equal with this once I get the chance to see it.)
  2. The Plot of the Fuma Clan
  3. Episode 0: First Contact
  4. Green vs. Red
  5. The Castle of Cagliostro
  6. The soundtrack albums
  7. Almost everything else (The other two TV series are clunky but not bad. Most of the specials have their moments and the 2014 live action movie is only as bad as the average TV special. Strange Psychokinetic Energy is too weird to not at least appreciate, and I don’t hate the Detective Conan team-ups. I wish I liked Dead or Alive more and I haven’t seen the infamous Legend of the Gold of Babylon.)
  8.  **Episodes 145 and 155 of the red jacket series (Miyazaki’s version of Fujiko is an acquired taste and 155 in particular seems like Miyazaki used it to finance proof of concept art for Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky.)

*I’m a fan, not a fanatic. For better or worse, I’ve never been motivated by any fandom to binge watch or collect everything in a franchise.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

My Middle Name is Larceny: Carry Forward


I’m not going to suggest this as a Setting Rule or anything like that. Heck, I’m not sure it even makes sense for any other Savage Worlds players—even if they are playing a duet game like me and Robin. It’s just a house rule I’ve come up with (obviously somewhat inspired by Powered By the Apocalypse games) that has really helped us emulate the sort of highly-competent, cinematic characters we wanted with My Middle Name is Larceny.

 

Carry Forward

When the player succeeds on a roll, any raises above and beyond those needed for success on the roll accumulate to the player as +1s that may be added to successive rolls in a manner similar to successes granted by other characters in a cooperative roll. The following limitations and options apply:

  • +1s may be spent after the dice are rolled.
  • +1s are not limited rolls for the same Attribute or Skill.
  • +1s may be added to any roll, regardless of whether it is a Trait roll or not.
  • If the Critical Failures setting rule is in effect, then +1s may not be spent on critically failed rolls (except Soak Rolls).
  • Players may not overspend +1s to generate additional +1s on a roll.

 

Example:

Bev Slick is in an “opening credits sequence”-style firefight with some mafia thugs. Robin’s dice explode at a completely unnecessary time and she scores a 36 to hit when all she needed was a 4. Deducting the raise needed for extra damage, this gives her 7 +1s to bank for when she needs them.

Later, while breaking into a safe during a critical juncture in the story, Robin rolls a 2 on her Lockpicking skill die and a 1 on her Wild Die. Knowing she’s going to need to save Bennies for the inevitable final action scene, Robin spends 6 +1s to score an 8 on her Lockpicking roll (required in this case because the safe’s countermeasures impose a -4 to the roll).

 

Game Masters and players utilizing this idea are encouraged to track +1s with tokens of some sort. I use a cheap set of Bicycle poker chips when it’s just the two of us. Since there’s 50 white chips, 25 red chips, and 25 blue chips, I use the white chips to track +1s, the red chips to track Wounds, and the blue chips to track Bennies. (We rarely need to worry about Fatigue.)

 

Again, this isn’t something I’d ever propose as an actual Setting Rule, and I doubt many game groups would need it. For us, though, it’s really helped us keep the action big and cinematic in a way that doesn’t feel arbitrary or like cheating. It’s also a way to translate doing research about heists (through Gambling with the marks, Investigation, Notice-fueled stakeouts, Persuasion-based seductions, and Streetwise) into a concrete bonus in actually executing the crime.

 

Plus, you never have one of those situations where the dice explode on some relatively inconsequential roll but roll awful when the real action begins.

Review: Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters

Well, that was weird. I jest, but Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters is not the book I was expecting, presenting strange and twist...