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First Impression: Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine

I’ve been a moderate fan of Lupin III in various forms ever since Castle of Cagliostro played a role in my becoming an anime fan back in the Streamline era, when we walked uphill to school both ways, in the snow, and the only anime we got was edited, dubbed, on VHS, and cost $35 a tape.  And we liked it.

Anyway, I just got around to watching the first couple episodes of the new Lupin III TV reboot, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (impressively, available uncut on Hulu, which is saying something for a show like this). One of the things that’s always set the Lupin III franchise apart, and kept it going so long—similar to the Bond franchise—is that it’s always changing and has never cared at all for continuity.

Even taking that into account, this series is quite a departure. There’s the fact that, as the title implies, it’s told from the perspective of, and focuses on, Fujiko, which is interesting in and of itself—she’s a less-playful character, being much more of a femme fatale than a slightly goofy superthief.  Much more notably, though, it fashions itself somewhat after the series’ earliest Monkey Punch manga roots, which was quite a bit darker than most of the later anime incarnations, and had a lot more adult content.

It also styles itself after both the manga and the general look of the era. The art looks quite a bit like the art of that early manga—lanky, of course, but very sketchy and with heavy, rough linework rather unlike anything else, period. The incredibly stylized coloring, more notably, is full of heavily stylized colors, random psychedelic patterns, and generally all sorts of flavor that hearkens back to some of the wilder animation of the late-’60s and early-’70s era that gave birth to Lupin. There have been a few anime that have done similar things, of course—older shows like Soul Taker, and more recent ones like Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei and Baka and Test—but it still has a unique look not quite like anything else and memorably retro-looking.

The combination of the very unusual linework, artistic flair, and stylized coloring gives the whole show a look rather like a Bond movie intro. Which is totally appropriate, and unlike some shows that end up drowning in their own style, or seem to be trying to hide behind their art, this one it really does seem to work well on—it sets the mood, defines the show, but still works as part of the story, and doesn’t distract from it. It also doesn’t seem to be trying to compensate for a lack of budget—it actually looks quite expensive, since the rough, ’80s-style linework still has a fairly high framerate and there’s plenty of motion and detail.

The stories are dark and colorful so far, with proper edgy flair of people who have too much and are pushing the envelope ever farther in search of something to keep life exciting.  It’s a total reboot, so it’s re-introducing the characters to each other, and the audience, and since it’s such a departure from past incarnations it’s actually sort of appreciated—it doesn’t feel at all like it’s wasting my time. Plenty of sex without seeming gratuitous, plenty of violence without it seeming like the point of it, and although the mood is dark there’s still plenty of excitement—it’s fast-paced and punchy, and there’s still a bit of levity. Plus at least a couple of huge, spectacular action scenes in the first episode.

My only real complaint is that some of the voice actors have been changed, but with some of the old cast in their 80s now, I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.  Still, Zennigata just isn’t quite Zennigata without Goro Naya’s voice, although it’s hard to complain about Koichi Yamadera as a replacement.  Kanichi Kurita’s still on board for Lupin, fortunately, and Miyuki Sawashiro is good as the new Fujiko.

I’ll reserve judgement on the series as a whole, but if nothing else it gets credit for being something that looks nothing like any other anime series out there, period, and for being a reboot of a beloved franchise that takes it in a very different direction but still feels true to the original spirit.


Upotte: Craziest [Thing]-girl Idea Yet

Sometimes you run across an idea that sounds so crazy you figure that it can’t be as bad as it sounds. And sometimes it turns out not only is it every bit as bad as it sounds, the execution is so utterly cracked you cannot believe what you just watched. Upotte is one of those shows.

See, it’s a gun-girl anime. Not gun-girl like Gunslinger Girl, girls-with guns or something—that, I could accept. No, it’s about girls who are guns. Literally. No, that doesn’t make sense. At all. In theory, in concept, or in execution.

Any anime fan is familiar with moe-anthropomorphism, the inexplicable desire to create a cute, female, anthropomorphic version of more or less anything (which totally needs a catchier name, a la Rule 63, which it’s sort of the inanimate-object corollary of… Rule 64 seems to be taken, so maybe Rule 63b?). You’ve got whole genres of anime about cat-girls and wolf girls, plenty of robot-girls, and if you dig a little deeper computer-girls (does anybody still remember Buttobi CPU?), plus the recently-popularized plane-girls.

Now, plane-girls are pretty darned crazy as an idea for anime—the webcomic Krakow actually used one as the craziest [thing]-girl idea possible for a crazed fever-dream girlfriend, but Strike Witches did some logistical twisting to make normal girls (actually, catgirls, which was pretty impressive for doubling up) into plane-girls in a way that sort-of-kind-of made sense.

My previous winner in the craziest thing-girl show, thus, went to Rescue Me Mave-chan, which used random metaphor to turn Yukikaze planes into cute flying girls. Which made no sense, and was stupid, but the logistics at least sort of worked via the alternate-dimension-where-feelings-are-given-form excuse that’s been standard since at least when I was watching Saturday Morning Cartoons in the ’80s, and probably a lot earlier than that. The runner up is Hetalia Axis Powers, but that whole show was a full-on metaphor (a sort of offensive one, but still), so its setting didn’t really need to make any sense.

Enter Upotte. Where assault rifles are, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, actually teenaged anime girls who go to school together where they learn to become better assault rifles in what is apparently an otherwise more or less normal world. Because that makes sense in whatever semi-lucid mental state the writer must have been in thanks to a combination of a high fever, too much dextromethorphan, and a severe lack of sleep. Because you know what? That’s the only way I can come up with that somebody actually sat down and wrote this show.

No, wait, I’ve got one other theory: It was a dare.  Somebody came up with the most utterly crazy, unproducable idea for an anime series ever, then dared somebody else to actually write it, and he did. And then somehow they got the budget and production crew to actually animate the whole thing pretty well.

Is there actually a market for this? I have to assume so, but that’s deeply depressing to me. I’m all for narrow-focus, non-mass-market things, but this is taking that about three and a half steps too far.

What’s so frightening is that the show seems to be taking itself some semblance of seriously, and doesn’t seem to be making any nod to how utterly cracked it is, or what has to be wrong with its apparent target audience. Because honestly, if you’re got enough of a gun fetish to want to watch this show, you need help. Serious help.

I should step back from my rant for a moment here to note that I actually started writing this prior to the tragedy in Colorado, and intentionally bumped the publish date back by a week out of respect and to avoid a bit of “too soon” on the subject matter.  Honestly, though, as sick as it is, Upotte has nothing to do with maniac mass murderers.

It also doesn’t have anything to do with people who aren’t maniacs or mass murders but take the nothing-inherently-wrong-with-it hobby of gun collecting to an unhealthy extreme and end up with a basement full of military-grade assault weapons—it’s targeted at a completely different kind of gun fetishist.

Which is an interesting cultural thing in and of itself, because in the US where I’m from, “gun nut”, when used as a stereotyped epithet, brings to mind images of midwestern white guys in cammo with lifetime NRA memberships and jacked-up pickup trucks, while I’m guessing that in Japan the stereotypical “gun otaku”—and certainly the ones Upotte is targeted at—are probably a lot more like Sagara’s socially inept classmate in Full Metal Panic. Even bolt-action hunting rifles in Japan are heavily regulated and difficult to come by, so gun hobbyists are by necessity more of a theoretical creature—the sort who owns elaborate airsoft replicas and reads magazines.  And, in extreme cases, probably doesn’t get out much and apparently watches this crap.

To be clear, I’m not trying to tar all gun aficionados with the same brush here—I’m saying that when you stereotype extreme gun hobbyists in the US versus Japan you get a very different image. And, more importantly, that this show is, so far as I can tell, targeted at people who go way overboard with the hobby into obsessive-otaku-with-no-life territory.

Anyway, enough social commentary. The first episode starts a little off and just keeps getting worse every time somebody talks. It just doesn’t make sense. In a way that kind of hurts, and is in no way the good sort of crazy. Seriously, what had to be wrong with somebody to make this show?

If you get past… well, pretty much everything, it is a Xebec production, so it’s actually rather well done. The art is cute and the animation is well above average, but then so was Kanokon. I guess the folks at Xebec deserve credit for going absolutely all-in on whatever you give them to work with, be it quality concept or absolute, steaming garbage laced with insanity.

Let me make clear that that’s sort of a negative—there are so many better ideas than this (even some that just had to be more marketable) that either never got made or didn’t get a fraction of the budget or production quality that it’s a flat-out insult when literal gun-fetish-lunacy does. (Yes, I said literal—apparently a central plot point is about the FNC girl having the hots for a human teacher. Ugh.)

It’s also rather impressive how into its source material it is—the actual guns the girls are shooting (which even in context really doesn’t make any sort of sense because… they already are guns, right?) are all kinds of detailed, as are all the factoids and such that you’d expect from anime targeted at some really narrow fanboy subgroup, but then I can’t imagine that you could manage to sell something with this narrow of a target market without getting properly into the details of the subject matter. And I suppose it’s also possible that it actually just sounds well-versed to somebody who isn’t a fanatic about the famed assault rifles of the world.

Basically, thanks (I assume) to Xebec being what they are, the show is about as good as anybody could possibly do this concept.

Given how painful the first episode is, I really don’t want to see any more, but it’s one of those cases (see: Popotan) where morbid curiosity is tempting me to find out just how they can manage to fill 10 episodes with something that couldn’t even stay remotely coherent for fifteen minutes. That’s a lotta suffering, though.  If I ever write a full review, you’ll know, because if I manage to sit through it all there’s no way I’m not getting something out of it.

Incidentally, I forgot the worst part: The whole thing was available nearly simulcast on Hulu. Almost twenty five years and we still haven’t seen a single legit release of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Code-E hasn’t been licensed. Half of US Manga Corp’s abandoned catalog is still out of print—used VHS copies of The Tale of Genji are selling for $100 on Amazon. Only Yesterday still isn’t on video in the US. But this garbage somehow gets licensed, translated, and released to the net within weeks.

There is no justice in the world of anime production and even less in licensing.

Gravion Zwei Impressions

Three episodes in, Gravion Zwei is a huge improvement over the original Gravion. The question I’m left asking is why, and can it keep it up.

Just as Gravion was either a parody so badly-executed it wasn’t obvious it was a parody, or an action-comedy so over-the-top-awful it was entertaining, Zwei has me choosing between two similar options:  Either they hugely upped their game in the parody area, making Zwei actually amusing, or somebody decided that the original was so irredeemably awful they could salvage it by converting it to an over-the-top parody of itself in the sequel.

Either way, it’s a heck of a lot funnier so far, and is no longer pretending to be even remotely serious—the humor went from merely silly to so over-the-top that it’s barely coherent. The fairly mean-spirited sense of humor is working much better for me, and some of the goofy things they’re doing with the main characters are far enough overboard to make some tired mecha-parody gags funny. The best is a throwaway joke with the all-business prettyboy pilot doing a completely pointless mecha transformation scene in picnic dress with the mascot ferret on his head—the ferret is doing the dramatic pose along with him. The upskirt shot on a maid at the start that turns out to be the main character in drag was appealingly backhanded, and even the hotsprings episode focused more on ridiculous slapstick than fanservice. Oh, and it also features the supporting cast ordered to sing the mecha’s theme song as karaoke to back up the battle—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the in-character-singing thing played quite like that before, and it had me laughing pretty hard.

Speaking of fanservice, that’s also been ratcheted up about three notches. Before there was lots of maid-service, and a modest amount of panty shots, but it was actually unexpectedly clean given the costume pandering that the entire hero organization is based on—if nothing else, no “naughty bits” made it to the screen. The sequel does not seem to have any of that restraint—not voluminous, but there are nipples to be found, and the already ridiculously-busty pilot has had her bra size increased to “oh, that’s just silly” and some kind of spring mechanism installed that causes her chest to oscillate violently (sometimes with sound effects) every time she changes position. The hardbodied male leads also ended up even nakeder than the women, and there were some exposed backsides there as well, so it’s even spreading the skin between genders. Some of it is so overkill that it’s actually funny, to its credit, and in my opinion if you’re going to do shameless fanservice you might as well not hold anything back, so even if I was taking it “seriously” I’d call it an upgrade. It’s still got nothing on Godannar, though—yikes that show had the bounce factor.

Sadly, the pedo-maid trio have been explicitly labeled as kids, so the possibility of them being just uncomfortably young-looking rather than wildly inappropriate went out the window. Anime, would you please stop doing things that should be horrifying to any sane adult? I promise I won’t make fun of natto, and I’ll even let tentacle porn slide if you’ll just draw a line somewhere on the right side of puberty.

Final thought: The one regular military pilot that didn’t die after two seconds onscreen in Gravion actually survives (despite indications to the contrary in the final episode) as part of their own new not-entirely-incompetent mecha team, which I was happy to see. The female member of said team in the hotsprings episode has one of the most over-the-top-detailed costumes I can think of outside Oh My Goddess, and her work uniform is only slightly less detailed (and even skimpier).  I go for that kind of design, even if it makes no functional sense most of the time.  The regular army still has no maids, though—no wonder they keep getting blown up ignominiously.