Upholding the trend for gritty reboots of popular comic book characters, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine puts a darker psychological spin on one of the most beloved anime franchises of all time. Created by Monkey Punch - favoured pseudonym of manga artist, writer and occasional animator Kazuhiko Kato - the adventures of daredevil super-thief Lupin the Third featured in two acclaimed television shows, a failed live-action adaptation and an enduring run of anime movies directed by everyone from genre maestro Hayao Miyazaki to cult crime film auteur Seijun Suzuki. Though his early films rank among the most inventive anime ever made, later outings softened and sanitized the anarchic anti-hero to an excessive degree. Which is one reason why this thirteen part serial proves such a scintillating shot in the arm for the well worn franchise, not least because it switches focus away from lanky, larcenous Lupin onto his arch-rival and occasional lover: lithe, leggy and luscious lady thief Fujiko Mine.
Getting off to a rip-roaring start the first episode opens as foxy Fujiko (voiced by Miyuki Sawashiro) infiltrates a dangerous cult that have grown rich off distributing a powerful hallucinogenic drug administered in the form of floating flower petals. Swiftly seducing the crazed cult leader amidst a fevered Tantric sex ritual, Fujiko sets out to score some treasure only to cross paths with criminal genius Lupin the Third (Kanichi Kurita) who has the exact same aim. As the caper ends up going spectacularly awry, both crooks make their escape with Lupin instantly infatuated with the delicious yet duplicitous Fujiko declaring his intentions by scrawling an oath on her thigh that he will someday steal her heart. Pursued by dogged Interpol agent Inspector Zenigata (Koichi Yamadera) and his ambiguously androgynous sidekick Oscar (Yuki Kaji), the two thieves try to outrun, out shoot and outwit each other over a series of globe-hopping capers that involve a vengeful lady mob boss, an assassination attempt on a European aristocrat aboard a speeding train, a South American revolution that brings civilization to the brink of World War III, a mass outbreak of lesbian lust among machinegun-toting schoolgirls, an experimental drug called Dizzy, and an eerie amusement park modeled on Fujiko's own tortured psyche. All the while Lupin is intent on unraveling the mystery that is Fujiko Mine, little realizing sinister forces share his obsession. A mysterious cadre owl-masked minions are manipulating every stage of Fujiko's tumultuous life with an end game connected to her own traumatic past.
Her name might translate as a juvenile reference to her impressive décolletage ("mountain peaks of Fuji") and she is regularly ranked the sexiest heroine in anime but Fujiko Mine has always been an intriguing enigma and her multifaceted relationship with Lupin is an integral aspect of this enduring series. Sometimes she is friend, sometimes she is foe. She is a liberated hedonist and free spirit who routinely uses her feminine charms to get what she wants yet pushes away those that truly love her. A woman who claims she values wealth above all else yet only ever robs from the crooked and corrupt and will often step in to safeguard an innocent. Making a bold mark as the first female creative team behind a Lupin adventure, director Sayo Yamamoto and screenwriter Mari Koda craft a labyrinthine mystery that coalesces all these contradictory personality traits into a mind-bending psychological portrait of the woman called Fujiko Mine. It establishes a uniquely unsettling yet lyrical tone via the amazing reoccurring opening credits accompanied by a sublime theme scored by Narayoshi Kikuchi worthy of Michel Legrand or Ennio Morricone. A mysterious old lady narrator (Ichiko Hashimoto) recites an ominous poem that seems to offer a window into Fujiko's psyche while fantastically fetishized images feature the scintillating sexpot cavorting naked in various provocative poses. As a mark of how much subtlety and care when into the production, the closing credits provide further significant plot clues as "Duty Friend", a soulful slice of J-pop composed and performed by NIKIIE, plays over eerily paedophilic images of a dead-eyed little girl hinting at some unspeakable trauma in Fujiko's past. Naturally, it falls to Lupin to serve as amateur sleuth, piecing the mystery together as the plot poses some fascinating existential questions about free will and identity.
Along the way the series re-introduces the rest of Lupin's iconic crew as Fujiko encounters, infuriates and entices the likes of sharpshooter Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi), from whom she steals his trusty .357 Magnum on the orders of vengeful female mob boss Cicciolina (Atsuko Tanaka), and stoic master samurai Goemon (Daisuke Namikawa) in a story that is a witty parody of The Sound of Music (1965) with Fujiko posing as a singing governess named Maria for three boisterous children who find themselves caught up in an assassination plot. Each man becomes infatuated with an aspect of Fujiko though she also earns the obsessive hatred of Oscar, whose character name, design and aspects of personality deliberately evoke the iconic heroine of Ryoko Ikeda's seminal shojo serial The Rose of Versailles (1978). Oscar comes to loathe Fujiko as the embodiment of everything he longs for but can never be, before she eventually proves his undoing on both a psychological and moral level.
Okada concocts a plot that is something of a sly misdirect initially set up to provide some sort of pat psychological explanation for Fujiko's fractured personality when it eventually reaffirms her iconic status as anime's quintessential enigmatic, liberated, uninhibited femme fatale. Monkey Punch's classic characters first appeared in the late Sixties when staid bourgeois values embodied everything wrong with the world while the anti-hero was king. Sensation seeking anarchists like Lupin and Fujiko, for whom crime was an extreme form of performance art, came to embody a form of freedom and defiance in the face of stifling conformity. Where The Woman Called Fujiko Mine succeeds while most gritty reboots fail is that the characters remain recognizably themselves only expanded into more challenging mature dimensions. Tonally closer to Monkey Punch's outrageous original manga, the sexual component is amped up considerably with our heroine ending up in a tantalizing state of undress in every single episode yet firmly in charge of her sexuality in a manner that leaves her more multifaceted than a mere sex object.
Featuring chara designs by Takeshi Koike, director of ambitious sci-fi actioner Redline (2011), the high quality animation bears a cinematic fluidity on par with the classic Lupin III feature films with an emphasis on visible pencil scratches and charcoal lines that capture the energy of Monkey Punch's art. It builds to an operatic mind-fuck that ramps up the emotional and psychological trauma to eleven yet includes a sweetly romantic twist as Lupin boosts the heroine's self-confidence while at her lowest ebb proving his worth as a potential suitor. Things end just as Lupin fans would want of a story that ultimately celebrates those ideas of freedom and nonconformity embodied by Monkey Punch's beloved characters, and Fujiko in particular.