One of the most fascinating phenomena in film is the animated cartoon: elastic, threatening, inanimate yet agitated – the cartoon is an art form with very few parallels. What can seem confounding, however, is when live action films seek to imitate the cartoon. How can “real” actors emulate the raw madness, the infinite potential for everything imagined, that a drawing can possess?
Drawings are unique in that they are directly connected to the brain; and as this art form adjoins the brain, nowhere else can art be so directly connected to potential madness in all its sensual splendor. The only possible filters or censors are the ego and ability of the artist, and later on the nerve of the distributor or producer. This is why animation can seem so terrifying – nowhere else is reality so thin that a character can tear its own head off, then laughingly discourse with its torso while its legs ripple hideously. If this does happen in live action, it’s usually due to the touch of an animator, or with the sinewy puppetry of animation’s inbred cousin, special effects.
So it is rare when films come along that seek to emulate animation’s dynamic quality, and pull it off successfully. It is even rarer when the tricks they use to do it are limited to in-camera devices and the physicality of the actors alone. In this respect, Lupin III: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy (or Rupan Sansei: Nenrikichan Sakusen) from 1974 is quite a find. Based on Monkey Punch’s famous manga, Lupin III, the film finds its charm in broad slapstick, stunts, and contrived situations that are generally done without use of the special effects department. All of Melies’s tricks are employed here: split screen, double exposure, and jump cuts are all used to comic effect. But the treats this film conceals are not limited to camera tricks alone.
The basic plot of the film is that Lupin III, a naughty trickster raised in a Catholic orphanage (who spent much of his time peeking up nuns’s skirts and boosting the sacramental wine), has fallen in love with an extremely greedy thief named Fujiko who seems pretty ambiguous when it comes to Lupin III’s attentions, and forgoing the usual candy and flowers, wants Lupin III to pull off a big heist for her. To complicate things, Jigen, a gunslinging mafioso footsoldier, arrives to inform Lupin III that his father, Lupin II, had a huge mafia empire stretching across the globe that now needs Lupin III’s guiding hand.
Lupin III’s not interested, but Jigen stays close to the kid’s side, loyal to the Lupin genetics. To further complicate things, the Maccherone mafia family (pronounced “macaroni”) wants to off Lupin III so that the Lupin mafia stays non-competitive. To further further complicate things, an incompetent cop named Zenigata is determined to arrest Lupin III at any cost, despite the fact that he has no physical evidence that Lupin III has committed any crime. And that’s just the first act – or just about.
What follows is a lot of great pratfalls, bonks on the head, popcorn spit, jokes bashing Lupin III’s sexual orientation (many of which pose Lupin III as the “feminine” type, with police officers acting as his “masculine” counterpart), and very little psychokinesis. In fact, the title Lupin III: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy barely seems to make any sense – just the source of a few jokes where Lupin III brags about his “psychokinetic” powers (which primarily seem to be used for opening safes and doors…and involve his hands) to Fujiko – until the third act. Then the object of everyone’s desire is an artifact that was made by aliens and possesses psychokinetic powers, which we don’t see used in any way, but must exist based on the fact that the Maccherone family is suddenly hot for the doll, and half the police force are sent to protect it.
As you can probably guess at this point, the plot is pure nonsense. But you don’t watch films like this for the plot, you watch it for the gems buried just underneath the skin.
Some of Lupin III’s pratfalls, as performed by Yuki Meguro, are an art unto themselves – with a completely stiff, still body he falls straight back like a cartoon cat recently hit by an anvil. Pure genius. Jigen, played by Kunie Tanaka, is the perfect blend of badass gunman (he packs an entire arsenal underneath his coat, despite the lack of wormholes or other dimensional rifts in the area) and frustrated ninny. But by far my favorite moment in the film is an entire non sequitur – for no reason whatsoever, Lupin III encounters a group of nuns walking the street at night. Perhaps reminded of his youth, he stops to check out the nuns, who lo and behold strip off their habits and break into song. But these singing nuns don’t stop there – nuns, as we all know, don’t fight fair, and these ladies soon surround Lupin III to begin some serious butt-kicking. But Lupin III, breaking all rules of honor in physical combat, parries their kicks and punches with tickling, kisses, and gropes. I watched that part twice. It was truly as amazing as it sounds.
The cinematography in Lupin III: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy is, for the most part, fairly ordinary, with one extraordinary exception. In one scene, while Lupin III and Jigen chat in a concrete drainpipe yard, Zenigata and his men attempt to sneak up on them. The result is a beautiful composition with three levels of action, all of which are connected by the swooping, curved lines of the pipes. But alas, where this film could fair well by taking a card from Mario Bava’s color palette a la Danger: Diabolik (a superior film in the genre of comic book adaptations), the colors in Lupin III: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy are often quite bland.
Overall, this is a film for fans of 70s films, particularly fans of Japanese 70s films. The wacky weirdness and fun, though not as spontaneous or potentially frightening as animation, work well. For viewers who enjoy physical comedy and cartoon-style silliness, this film is a gem. However, I would not recommend this feature to genre first-timers, as the story is a bit slow, and somewhat episodic feeling. Unless, of course, they just want to fast forward to the nun fight.