Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lupin III The Mystery Of The Secret Of Mamo

(this review of Pioneer's LUPIN III: SECRET OF MAMO originally appeared at the ANIME JUMP website in 2004. The film has recently been released on DVD by Discotek Media.)

Funny how perspective changes things. When I first saw SECRET OF MAMO, back before you were born, I had already seen Miyazaki’s Lupin film CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO. Little did I know that the clean-cut, dapper, chivalrous Lupin of CAGLIOSTRO was not in fact the norm – was actually a total departure from Lupin’s true nature. When that faded-out thirteenth generation color bar faded from view and MAMO started, I was appalled. Not just at the incredibly lousy copy, but because MAMO’s Lupin wasn’t the charming rogue of CAGLIOSTRO. No, this Lupin was the perfect freewheeling bastard, a larcenous, horny, hairy-chested swaggering chainsmoking sonovabitch who fought dirty and attempted to molest Fujiko at every opportunity. In other words, what we’re seeing is the real Lupin III.

Of course this film's actual title is simply "LUPIN III". The original, unreleased English dub was designated “Mystery Of Mamo”, an appellation that stuck thanks to the thousands of home copies that were distributed through the American anime fan world of the ‘80s. An apt title; who dubbed this film? What was the purpose? Where was it shown? It’s a mystery, a mystery of Mamo, one might say. Theories range from the film being screened for the Armed Forces Network in America’s Japanese military bases, to a version produced for the inflight movies of JAL. This dub has surfaced attached to Lupin releases in Italian and Dutch. And maybe someday some intrepid reporter will track down who dubbed this film and why they changed Fujiko’s name to Margo. But I digress.

SECRET OF MAMO has been rendered into English four times – five if you count the scenes included in the CLIFF HANGER Laserdisc videogame. Curiously, even this latest Pioneer version – lovely DVD transfer, swell extras and all, does not measure up to the original “Mystery” dub. But that’s OK. You can’t beat perfection.

This film wastes no time; it opens with Lupin III being executed. Naturally, Lupin’s Interpol nemesis Inspector Zenigata is skeptical. His suspicion pays off in Transylvania, where a living, breathing Lupin escapes his clutches. Zenigata’s next ambush at the Great Pyramid in Egypt also fails to catch Lupin, who escapes along with fellow rogue Jigen with the Philosopher’s Stone in tow. Why is Lupin risking life and limb to swipe a mythical piece of rock? And why is he in Paris, handing it over to Fujiko, his double-crossing sometimes girlfriend?

The mystery is revealed along with Mamo, a blue-skinned dwarf resembling an underfed Paul Williams who is quite possibly the most powerful man in the world. To capture the Stone, his agents turn Paris into a battleground complete with attack helicopters and monster trucks. I don’t mean balloon-wheeled pickups, I mean monster 18-wheelers that roar like prehistoric beasts.

The rest of SECRET OF MAMO is a whirlwind of philosophical speculation and wild globe-trotting action. A crucified, brain-tapped Lupin betrays his overwhelming subconscious desires for women and Pop Rocks, a thinly disguised Henry Kissinger threatens Goemon and Jigen with America’s military might, and Zenigata wanders around Mamo’s secret Caribbean island, interrogating famous historical figures in an attempt to finally capture Lupin. The ten-thousand-year-old genius Mamo has cloned himself countless times; human history is a result of his constant interference. Is humanity powerless to stop this diminutive psuedo-deity? Will he succeed in destroying the world and replacing the teeming masses with his private collection of immortals? Will Fujiko choose eternal life - or Lupin?

Our heroes escape the Air Force bombardment of Mamo’s island and regroup in Colombia, where who should appear floating in the window? Mamo still lives, and with Fujiko mesmerized, departs to begin his campaign of world destruction. Alone, Lupin stakes his life on one gamble – that Mamo isn’t the god he appears to be, and that he himself is the one and only original Lupin III.

It’s at this point that MAMO really distinguishes itself. Lupin has been deserted by his most faithful companions, and even his hideouts, weapons, and wealth are gone – and yet he’s clawing his way up the Andes, facing down what may be an immortal super-genius with nothing more than a tacky blazer and a few homemade gadgets. Meanwhile, Inspector Zenigata defies direct Interpol orders and resigns – to continue chasing Lupin. Here’s where Zenigata and Lupin become brothers, both fighting for what makes life worth living.

SECRET OF MAMO seethes with this kind of philosophical subtext, but never forgets to entertain. The movie is a big, brawling, colorful set-piece adventure filmed in one hundred percent Tohoscope, full of nods to spaghetti westerns, James Bond, Hitchcock and even 2001. Lupin breezes through Paris, Egypt, Colombia, and the works of De Chirico and Dali without a backward glance. It’s the kind of film where Henry Kissinger lights his cigar with a lighter set in the torch of the Statue Of Liberty, where earthquakes are faked by detonating underground nuclear power plants, and Hitler and Napoleon brood on a Caribbean island – and when Our Heroes learn the Terrible Truth behind What Is Really Going On, they’re more interested in finding a place to neck. After all, they already know everything they know is wrong.

Yet where another, lesser film would get bogged down in boring What Does It All Mean mumbo-jumbo, MAMO never forgets its roots as an animated cartoon, heir to the tradition of Wacky Gags handed down from Tom & Jerry and the ouvre of the Warner Brothers. Throwaway jokes and visual puns abound; for instance, when a low-flying plane barely misses Lupin on a strafing run, its landing gear skids across Lupin’s head and leaves tire tracks, and what would be a fairly gory finish to one of Goemon’s sword fights has the shock value removed by what can only be described as a “sight” gag.

The Lupin franchise really put the animation studio TMS on the map, and it’s easy to see how MAMO turned them from a reasonably successful TV cartoon studio into one capable of holding its own in the cinema. MAMO’s widescreen is used to good advantage, with panoramic views of the film’s many locations giving the more fanciful aspects of the plot some solid ground to rest upon. The crew from the original 1972 Lupin TV series was reassembled for this film, and it’s evident from the painstakingly accurate vehicles, weapons, and gadgetry that the designers take great love in bringing realism to the cartoon world. I think the Lupin franchise –heck, culture as a whole - lost something when consumer electronics quit being hulking great boxes of leather and chrome with giant dials and knobs- it hearkens back to the golden age of home stereo when receivers and amplifiers were complicated, woodgrain combinations of function and form that looked impressive as hell on your bookshelf, instead of the insubstantial products of today. When you find out that history is worse than bunk, nothing more than the bored pastime of a crazed, ancient dwarf – what’s left but total, Playboy Philosophy, leather-interior, Hai-Karate soaked, quadrophonically amplified 70s style hedonism? This was a movie for grownups in 1978, and it’s even more so now; do kids today even know who Henry Kissinger is, let alone recognize the Clark Bar superhero contest ad when they see it?

It may just be the countless screenings of crappy bootleg copies talking, but this DVD looks FANTASTIC. There’s not a scene where my jaw wasn’t scraping the floor, agape in awe at how stupidly CLEAR everything is. I’ll come right out and say that Pioneer’s new dub isn’t bad. In fact, if I hadn’t had the soundtrack of the original “Mystery” dub burned permanently into my brain, gain hiss and all, I’d think it was fine. However, I have, and I don’t. Pioneer’s dub is not only not as funny as the original dub, it takes liberties with the original script that not only aren’t as funny or as dramatic, but in a few cases are just plain wrong, and once or twice they simply take this film places the film doesn’t want to go and in fact has made it pretty clear that it never wants to be anywhere near.

Henry Kissinger reads an issue of Lupin Comics featuring the famous Clark Bar Superhero Contest ad, now starring Lupin - edited from the American DVD release for obvious reasons.

The original “Mystery” dub is actually the closest yet to the original Japanese dialog. I don’t see why these outfits knock themselves out writing new lines when perfectly good dialog already exists. Sure, the Pioneer voice actors do a great job. Tony Oliver does a tremendous job with Lupin, and while Zenigata’s Jake Martin gets a bit too cowboy at times, he approaches the role with the right amount of bluster.

Luckily this new DVD comes with subtitles, so you can get the full effect of Jigen preparing to abandon Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart, albeit in Japanese. The disk also includes a digitized version of the original movie program book – the DVD booklet is a translation of same –and an art gallery full of conceptual sketches of all the characters in the film, and a few that aren’t. It ALSO comes with a Lupin keychain, which is kinda cool.

Not that I’ve seen all eleventy-hundred Lupin films, but of the ones I’ve seen, MAMO stands out as my favorite. There are plenty of Lupin adventures with gags, exotic locales, outrageous escapades, and other trademarks of the series, but MAMO combines the typical Lupin ingredients with a Cinemascope sense of spectacle and a good chunk of post-Watergate 70s cynicism (Can a Japanese film be “post-Watergate”?). Paradoxically, the outrageousness of Lupin works best when firmly rooted in the real world, and there’s not a Lupin film more outrageous yet more authentic than THE SECRET OF MAMO.

-Dave Merrill

Editor's note: the recent Discotek Media release of Lupin III: Mystery Of Mamo is an even better transfer than the Pioneer release, and contains all four English dubs, including the original "Margo" dub that has been scientifically proven to be the best. You need it in your life. 

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

can't stop the littles

North American anime fans were excited to see Studio Ghibli’s 2010 picture ARRIETTY THE BORROWERS, based on Mary Norton’s children’s books. But didja know that this isn’t the first time a Japanese animation studio has produced work based on Western stories about a race of tiny people that live in our walls? Huh? Didja?

THE LITTLES was one of the earliest animated series produced by DIC Entertainment – once the entertainment powerhouse responsible for INSPECTOR GADGET, THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS, part of CAPTAIN PLANET, some of the English dub of SAILOR MOON, and many others – now, after mergers and buyouts, a completely different beast altogether. But in the glory days of the 80s DIC was the kidvid king, responsible for giving many Western cartoons a distinctly international flair. Their Japan connection, producer Tetsuo Katayama, spearheaded Miyazaki’s CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO over at TMS. This relationship would pay big dividends as the Japanese studio was tapped to provide animation for a wide variety of DIC projects, including the aforementioned INSPECTOR GADGET, the Homeric SF adaptation ULYSSES 31, the video game tie-in POLE POSITION, Cousin Oliver’s comeback show KIDD VIDEO, and of course, THE LITTLES.

A loose adaptation of the long-running Littles children’s book series by John Peterson, DIC’s THE LITTLES began a three-year run on ABC in 1983. The adventures of Tom and Lucy Little, their parents Frank and Helen, Grandpa and goofy aviation enthusiast Cousin Dinky as they survive inside the walls of the Bigg family house – with the help of normal-sized Henry Bigg – were popular enough to spawn both a feature film and a TV special, as well as resurrection in the syndication television afterlife and on DVD.

Up against Saturday morning cartoon rivals like THE GARY COLEMAN SHOW, RUBIK THE AMAZING CUBE, DUKES OF HAZZARD, MR. T, BENJI, ZAX & THE ALIEN PRINCE, and of course BISKITTS, television viewers couldn’t help but notice THE LITTLES’ clean-line look and solid animation backbone. Unlike THE SMURFS, THE LITTLES had to ground its fantasy elements firmly against the real world of 1980s suburban housing. You can’t cheat your way through animating a series about tiny people that live in crawlspaces and underneath floorboards. The show’s versimilitude proved the fantasy staple of magical beings lurking in the nooks and crannies of the ‘real world’ translates well to television. Personally I was a little older than the target audience, but I enjoyed THE LITTLES regardless; how else was I gonna kill time before the premiere of MIGHTY ORBOTS?

the Littles have better public transit than most of America

There’s a strange appeal in tales of hidden creatures living on the margins of the human world – MRS FRISBY & THE RATS OF NIMH is still a juvenile SF favorite (and would get a big-screen animated adaptation around this time, though Disneyfied with enough magical fairy dust to make my teeth itch) and I’m pretty sure I read at least one of the original Littles novels to be at least familiar with the concept.

Henry and the Littles (with pet turtle Slick), the Bigg family, Dr. Hunter and his life partner Jeffrey

Viewed 25 years later THE LITTLES is aggressively 80s, from the lowercase font of its title to the pastel colors of the characters clothes, from the boxy compact cars the Bigg family drives to the dirt bike (and helmet, can’t forget the helmet) Henry uses to get around town from one Littles-infested crisis to another. Chased by Doctor Hunter and his assistant, LITTLES author John Peterson (!!), the Littles civilization is always at risk of being exposed to the outside, giant-sized world. This doesn’t stop them from using the big people as a template for their own lifestyle – there are apparently enough Littles living in our cellars and attics to require Littles-sized highways, filled with Littles traffic, running through our cities.
Hell's Littles On Wheels

One hopes the Littles are thankful for whatever zoning board decreed all structures needed lots of air vents and steam tunnels. When they aren’t going about their mysterious Littles business, Tom and Lucy always have time to help Henry out of a jam - complicated as usual by the antics of Cousin Dinky- and Grandpa can always deliver a lecture about how drugs are bad or how stealing is wrong, except when the Littles use it as the basis of their civilization. Well, that’s not really stealing. We didn’t need all that stuff anyway, go ahead, take it. THE LITTLES – charming children’s fantasy, or commentary on the wasteful nature of Western civilization? You decide.

Miyazaki's 'Famous Detective Holmes' makes an appearance

Episodes were capped with a “make it yourself” segment usually involving pipe cleaners, balloons, straws, scotch tape, and elementary laws of physics. In the third season of the series Henry’s family travelled the world (with Littles in tow) and the end segments became history or geography lessons. 

I’d quit watching by that time. My Friday nights were lasting a lot longer – movie theater popcorn isn’t going to pop itself, y’know – and my early Saturday mornings were spent sleeping instead of watching cartoons. Did the little people living inside our HVAC system shed a tear as one more viewer succumed to creeping teenageism? Only THE LITTLES know.

  -Dave Merrill
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