Twenty years ago, the internet and anime video scene was a much, much different place. Much of the discussion around anime was focused under the rec.arts.anime umbrella of Usenet (Kids, go ask your parents!). Online text translation via the Babel Fish (again, ask your parents!) was a year away. VHS still ruled the land, and you mailed tapes to people to get the latest fansubbed titles shipped back to you… Hopefully… Video on websites was relegated to postage stamp sized clips and could hardly be called “streaming”. In this mostly text based landscape, news of a brand new Lupin film being directed by the original manga author Monkey Punch ignited the Lupin fan base. There was even a web site for it! With postage sized movie clips! And it was titled Lupin the Third: Dead or Alive… How cool is that?!?
It would be about a decade later with the film’s release in the US that we would learn Monkey Punch only directed the opening and ending sequences. However, the film is held up by most Lupin fans as the closest return to the original manga roots since the first animated film Mamo. Lupin has set his sights on the treasure of the kingdom of Zufu. A mysterious “Drifting Island” holds the treasure, and Lupin quickly learns the island’s defenses are formidable and escapes by the seat of his pants. His efforts draw the attention of Zufu’s psychotic leader, the rebels fighting against said psychotic leader, his old nemesis Zenigata, and bounty hunters after the one million dollar bounty placed on his head.
On the surface, that bounty would seem to be the impetus for the Dead or Alive title. However, the bounty and bounty hunters play little part in the plot or action. If you watch closely, you find that the title is actually subtle word play regarding the actual major plot points of the film. To say more would spoil the fun, but this word play hearkens back to the original manga’s love of puns and other word play.
Another nod back to the manga was the film’s portrayal of Zenigata. The TV specials and other films preceding this mostly portrayed him as bumbling comic relief. While he did have comedic turns in the manga, he was sharp and ruthless in his pursuit of Lupin, a true adversary rather than an amusing nuisance. Dead or Alive revived that Zenigata, a key factor in shaping this film to be what many Lupin fans consider to be one of the top tier titles.
But one character alone does not a top tier title make. The film did an impressive job with the pacing of the plot and the character development. While Lupin’s quest for treasure is the main focus, a secondary plot thread was spun for a relationship between the deposed Zufu prince Panish and the Zufu female agent Oleander. Rather than slowing down the film’s pace, their scenes integrate between the action sequences to tell an engaging side story. The action sequences are also equally impressive featuring some beautiful sequences that combine high-energy action with the comedic touches the manga series is known for.
Funimation released the film on DVD individually and in their “First Haul” bundle of five Lupin titles. Both are out of print but still can be found for reasonable prices. While the film may never be as close to the manga as Mamo or a highly regarded classic like Cagliostro, it still remains one of the most entertaining entries in the franchise, one still worth watching now twenty years later.