Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo (1978, Japan)

Having never read the manga series Lupin III nor having watched any of the anime episodes, I went into my viewing of Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo (I’ll refer to the film by its subtitle for the rest of this write-up, but it is also known as The Secret of Mamo and Lupin III: Lupin vs. the Clones) knowing generalities about the main character and the constant supporting cast. Directed by Sôji Yoshikawa, The Mystery of Mamo is the first of seven Lupin III films as of 2014. It is based on the manga Lupin III – alternatively written as Lupin the Third or Lupin the 3rd – a comic crime manga following the adventures of the womanizing Arsène Lupin III, a French-Japanese (his ethnicity is not officially canonical) master thief who always manages to evade his nemesis, Inspector Koichi Zenigata, at every turn. Lupin’s characteristics are rooted in social trends in manga and anime of the late 1960s and early 1970s – a relaxation of wholesomeness and a distancing from Westernized ideas and storytelling undercurrents emanating from the Second World War.

By 1978, Lupin III was one year into its second television series after the first had targeted a decidedly adult audience. The Mystery of Mamo is tailored for the admirers of the first series as it includes more explicit sexual references and innuendos than the following film of the series (and the most famous) in The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), the cinematic directorial debut of some fellow named Hayao Miyazaki. This Miyazaki whippersnapper and his friend Isao Takahata had no involvement in The Mystery of Mamo as the duo developed the second half of the first Lupin III series into more family-friendly entertainment. For those Toho Company executives aiming for an edgier Lupin, Miyazaki and Takahata would not do. You just wonder what became of them.

As The Mystery of Mamo opens, we see Arsène Lupin III’s body swinging from the gallows. But his lifelong rival, Inspector Zenigata, is unconvinced, breaking into Castle Dracula in Transylvania to ensure Lupin is indeed deceased. But the body he finds is a decoy. On a hunch, Zenigata travels to the Pyramids of Giza, believing Lupin is targeting the area due to a rash of thefts concerning artifacts believed to grant the owner immortality. Zenigata’s hunch is well-founded, but Lupin and his partners-in-crime – the fedora-wearing gunman Daisuke Jigen and the anachronistic swordsman Goemon Ishikawa XIII (reportedly based on Seiji Miyaguchi’s Kyuzo from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) – escape the Egyptian authorities with the Philosopher’s Stone in hand. The Philosopher’s Stone has been requested by Lupin’s lover, sometimes-rival, sometimes-partner Fujiko Mine so that she can deliver it to an unnamed client. That client is Mamo, but the Stone is a fake made by Lupin. Mamo sends his henchmen, under the command of Flinch, in pursuit of Lupin and company across oceans and continents. Mamo’s actual intentions and origins are later revealed in the film’s nonsensical, ridiculous third act that betrays the self-aware campiness of the opening two-thirds due to his world-shattering aspirations.

The Mystery of Mamo is an entertaining, irreverent James Bond-esque action romp with impossible action scenarios that have the physics of Hanna-Barbera works. As the film is the reflection of minds that worked in the first half of the first Lupin III anime series, the armed combat is simultaneously treated with slapstick and seriousness. Blood and graphic, gratuitous violence is brief, but never to shocking extents. From the initial escape from one of the Pyramids at Giza, a car chase scene in a sewer, a mountainous episode of frenetic road rage, and the arbitrary science-fiction finale, The Mystery of Mamo is loaded with animated violence. The violence is roughly, yet pleasingly animated, inconsistently edited, and largely forgettable as these sequences are descended from several live-action influences. A brief parodic swipe at Richard Nixon’s national security advisors – Secretary of State Henry Kissinger primarily – will have those knowledgeable about the history of the Nixon administration in a series of belly laughs.

I am unable to levy much criticism towards the discordant resolution without spoiling, but the final third of the film results in some awkward tonal shifts and a fantastical premise at odds with the grounded (albeit physically impossible) reality of Lupin’s world. It is this third act which separates the decidedly flawed The Mystery of Mamo from The Castle of Cagliostro (from what I have been told as I will be watching Cagliostro in the near future).

Gratuitous sexual references and nudity almost always revolves around Fujiko (whose appearance has changed the most of the five central characters of the years with the exception of her large breasts; her name, in true James Bond fashion, means the “mountain peaks of Fuji”). Perhaps this should have been expected as Yoshikawa co-wrote the screenplay with Atushi Yamatoya, a director of pink films – low-budget Japanese erotic films that meet a “minimum quota” sex scenes that should not be confused with pornography (pornography has no concentration on a narrative whereas pink films concentrate on narrative – or at least attempt to). Fujiko, Lupin’s typically headstrong cockblocker, is more submissive than usual in The Mystery of Mamo. Combined with an unnecessary topless scenes in the shower and a moment where Lupin pulls down Fujiko’s dress and presses on her nipple, this is not exactly the most progressive piece of female representation ever. Whoa, nelly! Whoa, gunslinger! Where did that come from? Though I am certain there are less respectful portrayals of women characters in anime films during the 1970s, Fujiko – who characteristically uses her sexuality to get what she wants – could have been better-written for The Mystery of Mamo.

The simplistic artistry and occasionally limiting, roughly-designed art direction might seem outdated for anime fans accustomed to anime from the 1980s and onward. But in comparison to its Dark Age of Animation contemporaries (by my definition, the Dark Age begins in the late 1960s and ends in 1989) in Japan and elsewhere, The Mystery of Mamo’s artistic shortcomings are forgivable as they are never distracting. Some of the decisions, however, must have had audiences wonder what were Yoshikawa and his animators taking during the production of the film?

The Mystery of Mamo was certainly a rough introduction to the Lupin III franchise for me. But, for a novice who has written on anime films before and has seen his share of anime (but not enough to consider myself a fan; being a hypercritical spoilsport never helps, either), I found the film accessible and adequately entertaining.

My rating: 6/10

^ Based on my personal imdb rating.

NOTE: I watched the subtitled version of Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo, not the English dub.