Sayo Yamamoto had no interest in directing another typical Lupin the Third story.
It was mid-to-late 2009 and she was a few months removed from Michiko and Hatchin, her debut as a series director. The magical girl project she was developing as her follow-up was unfortunately turned down. A director without a project, she was contacted by producer Yu Kiyozono, who offered her the chance to direct the first Lupin television series in over 25 years.
With little reason not to accept, especially once she was promised full creative control of both story and staff, Yamamoto set to work on how she could draft a version of Lupin that would make her interested in the iconic gentleman thief, and how to make her version stand out from the many existing series, movies, OVAs, and TV specials. The idea would not come quickly, but once it did, Yamamoto’s vision would begin a process that would purge everything audiences had come to expect from the decades-old franchise, and in just 13 episodes deliver its darkest, sexiest, and strongest installment in years.
Yamamoto’s Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, made to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first Lupin anime (and the manga’s 45th), was the first series to be led by a female director, a female writer, and to have a story focused on the series’ iconic femme fatale. While there had been stand-alone Fujiko-centric stories told through the years, her role in the franchise had mostly been as a wild card, an untrustworthy accomplice who would gladly assist Lupin in his grand schemes just so that she could make off with the loot, leaving her gentleman suitor with nothing but perhaps a blown kiss and some charming words of affection until their next adventure.
The series tells the story of how Fujiko first meets Lupin the Third and the rest of the main cast: Daisuke Jigen, Goemon Ishikawa XIII, and Inspector Zenigata. As each of them crosses paths with this mysterious, masochistic woman, they are left wondering why this bewitching vixen constantly puts herself in harm’s way. Is it just for the thrill of the heist, or is there something she’s running away from? As they come closer to forming the iconic quintet anime fans know and love, Lupin works to uncover everything he can about his sexy new rival, the investigation leading him to a sinister organization which has been performing mental experiments on young women. The two master thieves eventually confront the head of the organization, someone who may be more obsessed with Fujiko than even Lupin is.
The series would be the first not to feature Lupin as the protagonist, but it wasn’t the first time a Lupin origin story had been done (that was 2002’s Episode 0: The First Contact). However, Yamamoto’s vision would venture into more radical territory. Instead being of a stand-alone series not tied down to any continuity, TWCFM would serve as a direct prequel to the original 1971 anime, with the overall mood more in line with the grounded Masaaki Ōsumi-directed episodes rather than the lighter ones directed by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. The anime would hearken back to its source material by having the story aimed at a strictly mature audience, as well as ditching the The Castle of Cagliostro designs that generations had become accustomed to in favor for one that more closely resembled creator Monkey Punch’s artwork. And the series’ score would not include a single note of Yuji Ohno’s snappy jazz soundtrack, including the timeless opening theme. Yamamoto’s grand scheme of shaking up everything people knew of Lupin was extreme, but it ended up giving the legacy franchise something it had been severely lacking in the years before its release: a fresh direction.
As the Lupin franchise was entering its fourth decade, it seemed like the icon’s best days were behind him: There hadn’t been a new TV series since 1984’s Part III, and the last theatrical film was 1996’s Dead or Alive. Since 1989, Lupin and company mainly appeared in yearly made-for-TV specials. The quality of these specials would vary from year to year; the majority of them were merely adequate 90-or-so-minutes of comfort food.
But by the end of the 2000s there had been a number of fruitless attempts to update the formula for modern audiences. Storylines included Lupin and his crew traveling 5,000 years into the past, coming into contact with a “genie” that had the ability to wipe away memories, and even a timid, gimmicky crossover with the more popular Detective Conan. By the time Yamamoto began developing what would become TWCFM, the franchise was mainly known for its complacency, an adventure series that was too conservative in its ideas and presentation. It was in desperate need of someone to throw out the old, dusty playbook and take a chance, to deliver something unexpected. That is exactly what Yamamoto had in mind, but like Lupin himself, she couldn’t pull off her master plan without some help from very skilled associates.
To help Yamamoto achieve her dramatic reimagning of Lupin the Third, Mari Okada (Fate/stay Night, Toradora), was brought in to write the series composition, making her Lupin’s first female head writer. Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe was placed in charge of the series’ soundtrack, and in turn brought in producer and musician Naruyoshi Kikuchi to compose the series’ score: a slick, flavorful, and electric jazz soundtrack inspired by Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Alan Rensais’ Last Days at Marienbad, a pair of 1960s British psychological thrillers that deal with female sexual abuse (a core theme of the series). And to fulfill her plans to reintroduce audiences to the designs found in the original manga, Yamamoto, knowing of his appreciation for The Castle of Cagliostro, hired legendary animator Takeshi Koike (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Yasuke), who had just finished a seven-year odyssey directing his debut feature Redline and was seeking a fresh start. For the next few years, Yamamoto and company would break every rule placed on this franchise over the past 40 years to deliver a series that would shake Lupin down to its core.
More so than any other Lupin production, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is a character-driven series that not only reintroduces these iconic figures in a darker, more mature setting, but provides the side characters who have been part of this franchise from the very beginning a level of depth not allotted to them in previous installments. In this series — more than any other before or since — Fujiko, Jigen, and Goemon all come across as fully fleshed out characters, rather than mere accessories to Lupin’s schemes.
They are all also given a much sharper, post-modern edge thanks to Okada’s script and Koike’s trademark thick-lined, comic-book-inspired designs, which strike the perfect balance between the manga and the Green Jacket series. While being a shade or two darker, the characters’ personalities are more or less the same, with the exception of Inspector Zenigata. He’s no longer the bumbling yet lovable “Pops’’ figure; in TWCFM he is a hard-nosed, openly corrupt and misogynistic cop. In what is perhaps the most shocking moment in the series, he makes a deal with Fujiko: freedom from custody in exchange for sex. Even after they’ve done the deed, he informs her that he still won’t let her go unless she assists him in luring Lupin out into the open as he plans to steal the bejeweled mask of a famous opera singer.
While the sex scene is not overtly explicit, it’s emblematic of the arc’s frequent use of nudity. Fujiko appears naked throughout the opening sequence, a beautiful voyage inspired by Eiichi Yamamoto (no relation), and in almost every episode. In many cases, having the series protagonist disrobe would be nothing more than a gimmick used to sucker in a few extra viewers and sell a little more merchandise. But the nudity in TWCFM has a purpose, even if it’s outside the franchise’s usual comfort zone. To Fujiko, her body is just as deadly a weapon as Goemon’s trademark sword Zantetsuken, and the handguns Lupin, Jigen, and Zenigata carry around. It allows her to get what she wants, go where she wants, and, if it comes down to it, escape from danger or certain death.
Fujiko weaponizing her sexuality has always been part of her character. But in TWCFM, she gets to flaunt her body while also getting to display a level of callousness and ingenuity rarely given to her. When she seduces a guard to escape execution, having the poor soul take her place on the chopping block, the move stuns Lupin, who until then only believed her to be a one-trick pony. In the rare moment where she is beaten at her own game, she quickly turns the situation back in her favor through a combination of quick thinking and playing on her sexuality. Unlike in so many of the series’ other installments, Fujiko always has the upper hand, is always in control of the situation, and is given time to display a more vulnerable and emotionally frail side than we’ve ever seen before — that is, until Okada’s script shatters our expectations and reveals itself to be the kind of long con only someone like Fujiko could pull off.
As Fujiko and crew try to get to the bottom of the memory flashes she experiences, the show expertly becomes two things: a compelling thriller, and a meta-narrative on reboot culture and women’s stories, nudity and all. With every man around her drawing his own conclusions about who Fujiko is, there’s a consideration of her very nature as a fantasy. By the end, the question remains: what is the mystery behind Fujiko Mine? The truth behind her is that there’s no mystery at all. Fujiko is not the product of a tormented childhood or abusive relationship; she lies, steals, manipulates, and seduces because that’s who she is. She isn’t a good woman gone bad, she’s a criminal and a damn good one. That is what makes her so interesting to Yamamoto, Okada, and (especially in this series) to Lupin the Third. He falls for Fujiko for who she is, and nothing more. In perhaps the biggest twist of them all, TWCFM gives us a version of a character who has been a male power fantasy since 1967 who is a true gentleman thief.
While not a massive hit compared to other series that were released that season (Kuroko no Basket and the second season of Fate/Zero), the series has gained a cult following, especially among female viewers. The arc would also mark the beginning of a triumphant decade for the Lupin franchise on television. Two more series would follow after TWCFM: 2015’s Part IV: The Italian Adventure and 2018’s Part V: Misadventures in Paris, both continuing to bring Lupin into the modern age. Part IV was a charming and entertaining return to classic Lupin the Third adventures and hijinks, with refreshing new characters and storylines, and designs that looked like classic Lupin but still tilted more toward Koike than Miyazaki. Part V would break further ground by having these very old-school crooks come into conflict with, and later embrace, modern-day technology (social media, the dark web, privacy, and cryptocurrency). The series would also distinguish itself from every other Lupin series by splitting up the episodes into separate arcs, with unique stand-alone episodes mimicking the tone and art styles of previous series, paying ample tribute to the characters’ long history on TV.
And as Lupin continued to excel, Yamamoto moved on to something more personally resonant. During production of TWCFM, her mental health had deteriorated due to the 3/11 Tohohku earthquake and the loss of a relative a short time later. Both incidents led her into a deep depression that left the ambitious creator unable to focus long enough to draw a storyboard. As work on TWCFM was coming to a close, Yamamoto did some reflecting, vowing that her next project would be focused on something she truly loved — figure skating — something she began to gain interest in during her time working on the series (Oscar’s outfits were inspired by figure skater turned commentator Johnny Weir). The result of that vow would come five years later in the form of Yuri!!! on Ice, a groundbreaking sports series championed for its mature and non-exploitative vision of gay love; it would become a worldwide sensation and stands as her most successful series to date. For the last six years she has been dedicated to finishing the next chapter, Yuri on Ice the Movie: Ice Adolescence.
By delivering Lupin’s most visually unique, sexy, and now most underrated installment, Yamamoto and her crew helped breathe new life into what was becoming a franchise plagued by formulaic plots and tired chemistry. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine finally put the spotlight on someone other than Lupin, giving us a much-needed look into one of anime’s most iconic female characters. Now past its 50th year in anime and recently wrapping up its seventh TV series, the Lupin the Third franchise is as strong as ever, thanks to a woman who had no interest in it at all.
Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is currently available to stream on PlutoTV.