Lupin the 3rd: The Mystery of Mamo (1978)
Nicholas Driscoll
April 25, 2008
Note: review may contain spoilers

I was initially introduced to Lupin the 3rd, like many others, through Hayao Miyazaki's first theatrical effort, the excellent Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), very loosely inspired by one of Maurice LeBlanc's original novels. That movie is a fine ride, full of excellent action and endearing charm, meeting and exceeding my expectations for a quality popcorn adventure story on film, which I originally viewed perhaps two years ago. One might wonder, then, why it has taken me so long to get around to enjoying any of the arch thief's other light-hearted adventures. But it was my enjoyment of Miyazaki's work that made me hesitate to indulge in any of the others. I was afraid that the other Lupin the 3rd films wouldn't be able to match up, and considering Monkey Punch's proclivity for salacious material, I wasn't sure if I was up for the extra helpings of cheesecake that would inevitably be shoehorned in. Recently I chomped the proverbial bullet and viewed the very first animated feature film based on the Wolf's exploits to make it to theaters, Lupin the 3rd: The Mystery of Mamo. (Although there was a live-action film that came before it, Lupin the 3rd: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy.) In sitting through the film, I found myself pleasantly surprised—and, at the same time, discovered my reservations to be thoroughly justified.

As with many properties that have a previous run on television, the first movie tries to do everything bigger and bolder and brassier, beginning with the execution of the titular protagonist even before the title card comes up. Of course, Lupin isn't really dead, but something strange is afoot. Lupin's deceptive and deadly lady love Fujiko has sent him on a hunt to steal the Philosopher's Stone, which he achieves in a riotous sequence inside and out of the great pyramids of Egypt with Inspector Zenigata on his tail. Later he makes his delivery to Fujiko and demands his payment—a date—but is rebuffed and double-crossed, the femme-fatale making off with the rock and leaving Lupin frozen via paralyzing spray. The rock that Fujiko has taken, however, is a fake, impregnated with a listening device with which the master thief overhears the beginnings of a mysterious conversation with an unknown mastermind known as Mamo (or, according to some sources, "Mameux" or "Mameaux"), who doesn't take kindly to Lupin's subterfuge. Soon Lupin finds himself a target of a seemingly omnipresent menace, hoodlums in lethal vehicles around every corner, all under the beck and call of a seemingly supernatural super criminal with a ubiquitous and malicious influence that circles the world—and the woman he loves (err, lusts) is on Mamo's side!

The story ofThe Mystery of Mamo is exciting and fast-paced, replete with imaginative action sequences and frequent amusing flourishes. As a whiz-bang adventure flick, Lupin's first animated movie excels. For the first hour or so, I was very entertained. Everything moves along nicely, and while there isn't really any thinking involved, there doesn't have to be. It's small-brained enjoyment with lots of high-speed hi-jinx and spoofish James Bond nuttery. Unfortunately, that's also the problem; due to its haphazard plot, The Mystery of Mamo loses its appeal fast.

Go ahead and read that plot synopsis again. See anything missing? Not many characters, are there? Lupin's partners in crime, Jigen and Goemon, are in the movie, and they follow Lupin through his adventure, but they sometimes feel tacked on—included for the sake of the fans, but not really necessary to the plot. Sure, they fight with Lupin occasionally, and they'll show up if Lupin really needs his fat pulled from the fire, but mostly they're here to make the fans happy, and to point out what a jerk Lupin is. (Lupin's selfish idiocy is strong here, making audience sympathy somewhat difficult to come by.) They never quite pull-off the easy camaraderie of The Castle of Cagliostro, which is part of the point—that way they could include the inevitable fake-out break-up of Lupin's entourage. Zenigata is even more superfluous, a moronic bumbling policeman who infrequently appears to chase Lupin but inevitably fails to advance the plot in the least. Most galling is that the movie just goes on too long, goading the audience with several false climaxes until I was fairly barking at the screen in an ineffective measure to speed the credits to come along as quickly as possible.

Not that the performances themselves are bad; the Japanese side is mostly quite good, with all the popular cast present and apparently enjoying themselves. The late Yasuo Yamada's boisterous Lupin is a treat, and Kiyoshi Kobayashi (who continues working in the field, and recently turned in a performance as L's assistant Watari in Death Note) gives a great growly Jigen; Makio Inoue also avails himself nicely as Goemon. If there is any criticism of note with their performances, it is that I would sometimes get confused as to who was talking because their deep voices are similar. The weakest performance here seems to be Eiko Masuyama, whose rendition of Fujiko came across to me as a stereotypical and artificial seductress, resonating little of the character's genuine strength—although it could be argued that, if she is being stereotypical, it's likely that Masuyama created the template in the first place. Notably for daikaiju buffs, Inspector Zenigata was voiced by Gorou Naya, who also appeared as a councilman in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) and provided the voice dubbing for Nick Adams' character in the Japanese version of Frankenstein vs. Baragon (1965).

The Mystery of Mamo is famous for its multiplicity of dubs, including an international dub by Toho, a dub in Great Britain, and two dubs in America. I experienced part of the Pioneer's 2003 release, and after watching the movie once with subtitles, I went back and watched a large portion dubbed as well, to get a good impression of all the main characters. As is to be expected in many anime dubs, some of the voices come off sounding much more cartoony, most notably Jake Martin's Inspector Zenigata, who sounds like he should be herding cows instead of chasing crooks with his surprisingly foul-mouthed, overdone English incarnation. Puerto Rican voice actor Tony Oliver provides the voice of Lupin and is quite good at it, and Richard Epcar (who actually directed this English version, and also dubbed Goemon in The Castle of Cagliostro!) is an excellent choice for Jigen, capturing his rough-edged charm well. Michelle Ruff's turn as Fujiko is about as successful as Eiko Masuyama's—which is to say that, again, she just seems off her game. Just as bad is Paul St. Peter as Mamo; he affects a rather poor British accent for the character. Arguably the worst is Lex Lang's Goemon, whose restrained voice work sounds forced, although much of that is probably due to the stilted writing. Worthy of note is how much of the dialogue is changed for the dub, made obvious when watching the movie with both dub and subs on; many lines are changed entirely, even to the extent that they inserted some bizarre ribbing towards President Bush when the Americans show up!

The animation quality is, predictably, quite rough, which will make it difficult to swallow for some of those weaned on the smooth, computer-colorized treats of today. The Secret of Mamo doesn't fair well against Disney features of its own era, either, which also isn't surprising. On occasion the frames become comically anemic, most vividly at a certain point when Lupin's pilfered automobile goes freeze-frame jerking through the air. Character designs are also rough at times, with strange anatomical dimensions and sketchy line work. Nevertheless, with an open mind, the film can easily be enjoyed, and is an interesting example of foreign animation from a previous decade. As far as I am concerned, I wish there were more old animated features given decent releases these days; just because a movie doesn't have the flash and dazzle of modern filmmaking techniques doesn't mean it isn't worth watching.

The soundtrack by Yuji Ono, who has scored almost all of Lupin's cartoon outings, skillfully incorporates Lupin the 3rd's popular theme into an appealing soundscape of jazz, disco, and early electronica-pop sounds that consistently encourage a light-hearted feeling of adventure. While occasionally the music may not perfectly mesh with the action, and the style makes the film very dated, I found the soundtrack to be mostly appealing, or at the very least quite interesting.

Earlier I mentioned Punch's tendency towards fan-service, so I will issue a brief warning here. Yes, there is nudity, including a lingering lascivious shower sequence and several other cases, including a peek inside Lupin's mind in which the audience is subjected to an incongruous slide show of snapshots of real women's breasts with their heads and lower bodies discreetly cut off or obscured. It's tasteless, but an accurate portrayal of Lupin's character.

If the original concept behind Lupin the 3rd is a haphazard collage of ideas, then Lupin the 3rd: The Mystery of Mamo is a logical extension of the material; Uneven, overlong, but with flashes of fun and inspiration. Unfortunately, I know that the various parts can be combined into something wonderful, and Lupin's first animated movie didn't master that particular secret.