When I was a kid, there wasn’t much anime available to American audiences. Commonly referred to as “Japanimation,” my options were Speed Racer, Battle of the Planets (Science Ninja Team Gatchaman), Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato), and Robotech (Super Dimenstion Fortress Macross/Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross/Genesis Climber Mospeada). There were others, but if your local television station didn’t play ‘em, you were out of luck. So when I came across a guy selling bootleg videotapes for all kinds of anime most Americans had never even heard of, I bought all I could afford. One of them was this zany crime caper that featured a gang of lovable rogues, one seriously obsessed police inspector, a samurai wedding, ninja party crashers, car chases that defy gravity, and mountains full of gold. It was Lupin III: The Plot of the Fuma Clan, and in many ways it was my adult re-introduction to the vast world of anime. It is also one of my very favorite movies ever.
Before we get into Fuma Clan, let’s first talk about Lupin III, one of Japan’s longest-running anime franchises, with multiple television series and tons of standalone movies. The central character is Arsene Lupin III, the world’s greatest gentleman thief and playboy. His pals are the taciturn sharpshooter Daisuke Jigen, the modern-day samurai Goemon Ishikawa XIII, and Lupin’s professional rival/femme fatale/love interest Fujiko Mine. Perpetually jaunting all around the world, chasing after new heists that inevitably lead him to thwarting even bigger bad guys, Lupin is himself also relentlessly pursued by Interpol Inspector Koichi Zenigata and a veritable army of police officers. Every Lupin installment is hung on these basic tenets.
In Fuma Clan, the action takes place entirely in Japan, where Goemon is marrying into a family of proper samurai heritage. But on the big day, a gang of ninjas bust things up and steal the wedding gift, an ancient vase that is both a priceless family heirloom and the key to immeasurable treasure. When Lupin and company try to get the vase back, Goemon’s young bride Murasaki is kidnapped and offered in exchange for whatever secrets the ancient vase might hold. Meanwhile, Zenigata comes out of retirement to chase after Lupin every time our hero seems to be building momentum to getting Murasaki back. Jigen dutifully rides shotgun all the while, as does Goemon, who can’t quite forgive himself for not protecting Murasaki, all while seeming strangely cool to the idea of getting hitched. Fujiko makes her own play for the vase as well, sometimes a damsel in distress, sometimes a guardian angel. It all comes together in a dramatic showdown in an ancient, hidden mountain fortress that involves plenty of deathtraps, terrific martial arts action, and the kinds of over-the-top adventuring that makes Lupin III so much fun.
Hardcore Lupin fans have criticized Fuma Clan for having swapped out the longtime voice actors for both Lupin and Jigen, as well as the series’ usual composer. The story is also pretty lighthearted and innocent in its tone, which works well on its own, but is indeed out of step with the rest of the Lupin chronology, which if often a bit darker and more randy. Still, Fuma Clan features some outstanding animation quality, and it’s a fast-paced, lighthearted story that is easy to watch over a bowl of popcorn. Most of its greatest strengths are precisely the kinds of things that tend to turn off those who don’t like anime in general: a certain level of melodrama and goofiness, a casual disregard for gravity and phsyics, and a general tone that kind of defies written description. It’s just…anime, you know? And if you love it, you love it. If you don’t, you don’t. That’s cool. There’s plenty of room on the planet for all sorts of entertainment.
What makes this movie for me, and indeed serves as its moment of truth, is a signature action sequence in which Lupin and Jigen are suddenly set upon by an entire fleet of police cars led by Zenigata. The inspector has pulled out all the stops and this time, will catch Lupin. Lupin takes off in what is easily the most able and supercharged classic Fiat 500 real or imagined, and what follows is a car chase that gets out of hand almost immediately. A careening procession of a dozen or more micro cars turns a downtown area into a destructible obstacle course, in which cars get totaled left and right, plenty of scenery blows apart, but somehow, nobody gets really hurt. The chase moves to the countryside where Lupin eventually launches off a cliff, survives an immense fall, and blasts down a heavil forested mountainside, all while Zenigata’s fleet sheds pursuit cars all the way to driving mishaps, obstacles, and general bad luck. At the bottom of the lies a giant bath house which has no clue what kind of havoc is about to pay a visit. Lupin and Zenigata’s procession blast through the bath house, first tearing up the grounds, but eventually heading inside the building and chasing each other down the halls, much to the chagrin of the frazzled bath house attendants who are sent running for their lives. Eventually, this battle of attrition ends when Zenigata’s car is the last one chasing, but even that suffers a knockout, and Lupin rides off, free once more to get back to the main story.
The entire sequence might be one of the most involved and delightful tangents in cinematic history. And I just love it. Having seen a lot of Lupin III movies and shows since, this sequence remains one of the purest distillations of the franchise’s sense of whimsy. Lupin III is all about. But more importantly, this scene also let me know that there was a whole lot more to anime—and foreign cinema in general—if I chose to seek it out. Boy, am I ever glad I did.