Referring to anything that happens in a Lupin III cartoon as “realistic” is folly, but the teleivsion special Lupin III: Elusiveness of the Fog pushes the boundaries even for the Lupin universe, where purple midgets in leisure suits threaten the world and Fiats somehow can drive up castle walls. I’ve always preferred Lupin’s slightly more grounded in reality exploits. Granted, we’re talking relative frames of reference here, but at the core of things, I like Lupin and his crew matching wits against their foes and pulling heists in a world that seems at least vaguely familiar. Elusiveness of the Fog, however, puts an entirely scifi/fantasy twist on the Lupin formula and gives us a goofy, breezy time travel adventure that manages to be disposably entertaining without being all that good.
I understand that decades of master thief, ladies’ man, and international man of mystery Lupin stealing gems and racing those little European cars through medieval towns must breed a mighty strong temptation to do something completely off the wall, so I don’t begrudge the makers of this television special for stretching their legs a bit. Generally, if you want to mix up a formula without really mixing it up too much, that means one of two things: time travel or “in space.” I probably would have preferred a “Lupin in space” movie, but the creative minds behind the long-running series of TV shows, movies, and manga decided it would be more fun to send Lupin and his two accomplices — the stoic anachronistic samurai Goemon and the chain smoking, fedora-sporting yakuza sharpshooter Jigen — back in time five hundred years to feudal Japan.
The action begins off the coast of Kiritappu, where Lupin and Jigen are partaking in a bit of deep sea treasure hunting at the behest of their frequent accomplice/foil Fujiko, whose role in the mission seems to be topless sunbathing. As is often the case, Lupin is searching for some fabled treasure, and as is also often the case, his fortune hunting is interrupted by dogged Interpol inspector Zenigata, whose sole purpose in life is to finally apprehend the elusive super-thief. During the ensuing chase, which involves boats that can also drive down roads for no particularly explainable reason and, naturally, one of those little Fiat 600’s, Lupin and his crew (minus Fujiko, who gets left behind) notice strange things happening. Fellow drivers on the highway suddenly start vanishing, as do bridges and other landmarks. Then a mysterious fog rolls in. Before anyone can puzzle out what’s happening, Lupin, Jigen, Goemon, and Zenigata plunge over a cliff and are somehow transported back in time.
Additional hijinks ensue in the past, as Lupin is forced into a job by a dandy time traveler named Mamou (who has appeared in the series before, a long time ago, though Lupin here has no memory of the encounter) who has a grudge against a future descendant of Lupin. Meanwhile, the trio (and Zenigata) get mixed up in a war between two tribes, pick up the trail of the treasure from the beginning of the film, and meet Fujiko’s ninja-esque ancestor, Ofumi. Almost none of it makes much sense, but that’s par for the course when a story tries to tackle time travel without really putting much effort into thinking things through. Hell, it usually happens when people do try and think things through. Mamou keeps erasing people from history by killing one of their ancestors, but then everyone who used to know the people who have been erased from existence mention that they haven’t seen so-and-so in a while. It’s sort of like Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, where they go back in time to erase Godzilla from existence by preventing him from ever being created, then everyone in the present sits around and reminisces about how Godzilla has now never existed.
The plot revolving around the treasure is just about as convoluted as the time travel business, but convoluted capers are more to Lupin’s style, so I didn’t really have much problem with that no matter how twisted up and tangled it became. This movie also tries to give Goemon something to do other than look stoic, stand in the background, and leap to the rescue, but it doesn’t fully succeed. He becomes the bodyguard for the beleaguered princess of one of the tribes, but once the plot gives Goemon something to do, it sort of runs out of “things for him to do.” He sits and stands around a lot, looking grave. So, I don’t know. You’d think that being transported back to what historians officially refer to as “samurai times” would allow Goemon to truly shine, but it’s just one of man missed opportunities that keep this special from being all that special. He gets to partake in some late-game heroics, but it’s really nothing more than he usually does. In fact, none of the gang are all that phased by being transported into the past, and the story never puts much effort into milking the concept other than having assorted generals be fascinated by Jigen’s Magnum.
For the most part, the movie moves at a fast enough pace that you can play along with it. Sure, it’s kind of a mess. Sure, things don’t make a lot of sense, and not just the time travel bits — why would a trigger-happy yakuza gunman travel with only the six bullets already loaded in his gun? Has Jigen forgotten the legions of cops and opposing criminals he, Lupin, and Goemon have to fight their way through on a regular basis? And what’s the deal with the fog anyway? At first, it seems to be linked to the time travel phenomenon, but people end up traveling through time just fine without the fog. And then, the movie seems to drop the fog entirely after the first half hour, despite being called Elusiveness of the Fog. But really, as long as the movie skips briskly along, anyone predisposed toward liking Lupin is going to be able to adapt. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about Elusiveness of the Fog, but it’s also hard to dislike the thing.
The two biggest disappointments in Elusiveness of the Fog are the lack of Fujiko and the presence of Zenigata. I know, I know. You can’t have Lupin without Zenigata, but the fact that you can’t have Lupin without Zenigata seems to be the only reason Zenigata is even in this movie. The story has nothing at all for him to do other than trail behind Lupin yelling, “Lupin!” The venerable Goro Naya returns to voice the character he made his own, but by 2007, Naya was in his late 70s, suffering from throat cancer, and his performance understandably lacks energy. When Zenigata shouts — which is all he ever does, mind you — it sounds weak, like someone imitating yelling but at a normal speaking volume. Naya, of course, deserves nothing but respect as one of the legends of voice acting, but this isn’t the performance by which you’d want to judge him. Look at it instead as a show of respect and gratitude for the man, like letting the injured veteran quarterback finish the big game. Except that he’s still at it, voicing Zenigata in the annual Lupin television specials at least as recently as 2010. So I don’t know. This was the first quarter of the big game?
As for the lack of Fujiko, some people look at that as a disappointment, others a plus. I think judgment either way is negated by the presence of Ofumi, who while not being exactly like Fujiko is still basically Fujiko, only with more of a focus on her actual skills as a fighter, downplaying the ol’ feminine wiles card on which Fujiko usually relies. So she gets bonus points for that, but then loses points for not be nearly as much fun as Fujiko. I guess that just about evens things out.
Dismissing the obvious silliness of the time travel plot, Elusiveness of the Fog is fun enough in a non-essential sort of way. If you’re a fan of Lupin III’s antics, then this entry into the series will be a forgettable but fun way to kill some time. It’s got a decent amount of action, some good jokes, and if nothing else, it is a unique twist on the usual Lupin formula. However, if you don’t have much experience with Lupin III, this movie will leave you wondering how something so underwhelming could have become the cultural touchstone for Japan that it did. There’s just not much oomph behind Elusiveness of the Fog, and nothing that will capture the imagination if it wasn’t captured already by some previous, much better example of the Lupin III franchise.