The Many Queernesses of Lupin III
In the course of its five decades on-and-off the air, the Lupin III anime franchise has spanned some 300 episodes, 26 movie-length TV specials, a dozen theatrical releases, several OVAs, and the work of numerous directors, animators, and writers. And though it was only this year that an openly gay character was added to its recurring cast, Lupin the Third has been queer at least since 1971, back when the manga was first adapted into an anime.
But while some anime series have clear, consistent directorial visions that are reflected neatly in how they portray queerness, Lupin the Third is at its core a collaborative work — its first season alone boasts nine screenwriters for just 23 episodes total. And just like (for example) Sayo Yamamoto’s interpretation of Fujiko Mine in 2012 differs from Hayao Miyazaki’s in 1979, Lupin the Third’s depiction of queer people and situations varies dramatically depending on who is creatively responsible for them.
The question of what is or isn’t “canon” or textual for Lupin the Third is also rendered basically moot by the wildly different interpretations on display throughout the series. But there are definitely a few threads that run through all — or most — of Lupin, and though some of those threads may conflict with each other, if you ignore the compulsion to merge everything into one consistent “canon,” you can unravel some super good (and super queer) stories that coexist more or less peacefully side by side.
So how should an interested-but-overwhelmed queer viewer approach this enormous, inconsistent body of work? Well, that’s what the AniGay Guide to Lupin the Third is for! This series will take you through the entire Lupin III anime (including OVAs, TV specials, etc), and point out its best and queerest episodes and plot threads along the way — from Jigen’s many ex-boyfriends, to Goemon’s affinity for drag, to Fujiko’s bisexuality, to… well, there’s too much to list. That’s why I’m doing a whole series!
In my Beyond “Canon Gay” post, I put Lupin III in the Implicit-Literal queerness quadrant, but truthfully there isn’t a queerness quadrant that isn’t covered by Lupin at some point. There are characters who are implicitly and explicitly gay, bisexual, and trans. There’s drag and there’s gender-swapping (magical and otherwise), and queer cultural references abound. Depending on the creative team, sometimes queer characters and situations are portrayed sympathetically, and even nonchalantly. Sometimes, however, they’re rife with stereotypes, homophobia, and/or transphobia. The AniGay Guide to Lupin will mostly be dedicated to discussing the more interesting, less fucked-up instances of queerness throughout Lupin III, but I’ll also include lists of episodes to Definitely Skip in instances of overt and un-nuanced bigotry.
And on that note, a final word about Lupin the Third as a whole before I dig into Part 1: Lupin III is an old TV series and as such is FULL of misogyny. Like with everything else, the flavor varies depending on the episode, but there are definitely situations where Lupin is depicted as attempting sexual assault or just generally being creepy as hell for laughs. Fujiko’s clothes frequently come off for basically no reason (though male characters are randomly stripped at least as often, if not more), and she is occasionally placed in sexual peril to advance the plot. There are also a few glaring examples of racism, anti-semitism, and other uncomfortable and problematic shit. The AniGay Guide to Lupin will list episodes to skip in extreme cases, but individual episodes won’t come with content warnings otherwise, so please proceed with caution. If you’re able to, Lupin III is absolutely worth the trouble it takes to steer around a few obstacles.
The AniGay Guide to Lupin III: Part 1
Like the rest of the Lupin TV series, Part 1 is available in full over on Crunchyroll. Unlike the rest of the series, Part 1 also has an easily available and reasonably-priced DVD set, which even includes the otherwise-impossible-to-find “pilot film” created just before Part 1 began airing in 1971. Cool!
And now, without further ado, let’s talk about Jigen and Zenigata. Because when you talk about queerness in Lupin III: Part 1, that’s what you’re talking about. More specifically, the subject at hand is Lupin’s complicated relationships with Jigen and Zenigata, both of whom are depicted as being (in two very different ways) in love with Lupin. Does he reciprocate? Are these relationships consistent in any way from episode to episode, series to series? And what do they mean to the characters involved? There’s only one way to find out.
Zenigata’s relationship to Lupin is remarkably consistent across the entire series, and tends to teeter on the edge between literally queer and metaphorically queer. How is that possible? Well, when Zenigata says he’s tied to Lupin by “destiny” or “fate,” he’s ostensibly talking about his repeated attempts to arrest Lupin, but the language Zenigata uses to describe these feelings occasionally (okay, pretty frequently) crosses the line into so-unambiguously-romantic that it’s clear the creators want us to interpret it that way. In fact, the majority of what Zenigata says about Lupin can be interpreted either way—is he talking about trying to capture Lupin like a cop captures a criminal, or is he using another, less literal meaning of the word “capture”? This double-meaning is sometimes acknowledged explicitly by other characters, and frequently hinted at by the visuals — like the flower petals in the gif above — and soundtrack, blatantly enough to push things into that “literally queer” category. But Zenigata’s professional-cum-romantic interest in Lupin often feels just as much like commentary on the inherently romantic overtones of the “cat and mouse” trope as it does a considered characterization of Zenigata. Like everything else about queerness in Lupin III, this varies.
Not only does Part 1 establish Zenigata’s conflicted feelings super early on (the extremely romantic gif above is from the very first episode), it also lays the foundations for Lupin’s flippantly affectionate attitude toward Zenigata’s obsession with him. And though Zenigata as a character will soften up a bit after Part 1 (for the most part), his playfully antagonistic relationship with Lupin is one of the series’ most stable, all things considered.
Jigen and Lupin’s relationship is a different story. But though Jigen’s role in Lupin’s life may appear to change from one episode to another, the fact that he has romantic feelings for Lupin can be relied upon to stay the same. This is partly because Jigen is depicted as gay with almost 100% consistency over the course of Lupin the Third’s half-a-century run. Jigen’s romantic distaste for women is well-documented, though often poorly translated, and the fact that his sexuality is defined by his dislike for one gender rather than his preference for another is more than just a nod to queer Japanese history (more on that in a future post); it also allows him to fly somewhat under the radar as a semi-openly queer character.
I say “semi-openly” because Jigen’s sexual orientation manages to be both surprisingly overt and conveyed almost exclusively via hints, subtext, and coding:
There’s no possible non-queer interpretation for the pair of scenes above, in which Lupin’s date with Fujiko is starkly juxtaposed with Jigen’s frustrated dart-throws at a heart-shaped target, but the queerness is also theoretically possible to miss because it’s never stated outright. For this reason, though it gets extremely close to explicit, I’d almost always put “Jigen is gay” squarely in the “implicit-literal” queerness quadrant.
But what about Lupin? Where does he fit into the equation? I know I sound like a broken record by now, but: It varies! The status quo of Lupin and Jigen’s relationship takes on a few different forms. In some episodes, like the one above (1.9), the dynamic is that Lupin’s primary (almost never requited) romantic interest is Fujiko (or, less often, another woman), while Jigen plays the unlucky third party in a Lupin-centric love triangle. (And I’ll be referring to it as the Love Triangle configuration.) Sometimes this is contentious (again, above) and sometimes Jigen and Fujiko seem to have reached an understanding. Importantly, Jigen and Fujiko’s relationship runs the gamut from mutual hatred, to begrudging respect, to affectionate friendship, again depending on the episode.
Another typical version of the Lupin/Jigen dynamic is a partnership that feels much more reciprocally romantic—though Lupin’s reciprocation always remains implicit. I’ll refer to this configuration as Crime Husbands. Generally, the Crime Husbands dynamic appears in episodes that don’t centrally feature Fujiko, though occasionally some hijinks conspire to cause Lupin to “choose” or “end up with” Jigen over Fujiko, which appears to strengthen their bond. Those are the episodes that end with Lupin and Jigen literally walking off into the sunset together, physically embracing while the screen fades to black, and so on. Lupin is always over-the-top touchy-feely, but Crime Husbands episodes emphasize this between Lupin and Jigen to a degree that can only be described as: cute.
There are other Jigen/Lupin(/Fujiko) dynamics that pop up over the course of Lupin III, but when Part 1 focuses on the queerness of Jigen’s relationship with Lupin, it’s primarily based on the two templates I just listed. And I promise I’ll eventually stop repeating myself, but pretty much none of this makes sense if you try and fit it all into one consistent timeline. It’s not that linear time doesn’t exist in the world of Lupin the Third; it’s that multiple linear timelines exist, so trying to merge them is an exercise in futility.
Queerness and Crime
There’s one more aspect of Lupin the Third that’s worth pointing out early on, even if I won’t delve super deep into it for now. As I touched on briefly in my Beyond “Canon Gay” post, criminality is one way in which queerness can be conveyed metaphorically: Criminals, especially career criminals, live on the fringes of society permanently and don’t fit into its “normal” expectations.¹ Obviously, Lupin and his gang are all prime examples of characters who refuse to adhere to conventional, heteronormative life paths. So even regardless of the particulars of their literal sexual orientations, this makes the entire framework of the Lupin universe inherently metaphorically queer. In Lupin the Third, this overarching metaphor is rarely if ever used as a direct or overt means to discuss queerness, unlike in series I would categorize more decisively as “metaphorically queer” (Devilman Crybaby; Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid; etc), but it’s still interesting to keep in mind because the Lupin gang’s commitment to their respective criminal lifestyles is, at the very least, a guaranteed way of keeping the pressures of heteronormative society off their backs (and out of their show).
Okay! So you’ve got a good idea of the basic queer structures in place for Lupin the Third: Part 1. Ready to watch some episodes? Below are a few that no queer Lupin viewer should miss.
The AniGayest Episodes of Lupin the Third: Part 1
Episode 1: Is Lupin Burnin’?
“Is Lupin Burning’?” doesn’t have the queerest themes on this list, but it’s the first episode of Lupin the Third ever, which alone makes it worth watching. More importantly, 1.1 introduces Zenigata’s burning passion for, um, arresting Lupin, along with some of the more straightforward dynamics of Lupin and Jigen’s partnership.
Episode 4: One Chance to Breakout
Episode 4, on the other hand — well, I won’t spoil it too much but basically: Lupin gets himself caught and thrown in jail, and resolves to break himself out. Jigen and Fujiko have wildly different coping strategies during Lupin’s absence, and Zenigata grows increasingly conflicted as Lupin’s stay in jail grows longer and longer. “One Chance to Breakout” is one of my all-time favorite episodes, and also one of the gayest and most romantic. If I had to choose just one episode from Part 1 to recommend, it would absolutely be this one. It’s peak Crime Husbands.
Episode 9: Killer Sings the Blues
“Killer Sings the Blues” is one of the first episodes in which the contentious Love Triangle dynamic between Lupin, Jigen, and Fujiko is really highlighted — starting with the opening pair of scenes, which I already discussed above and are just as queer in context. Also, bonus: Fujiko in drag! Hell yeah.
Episode 13: Beware the Time Machine!
Time travel, Lupin in mortal peril, a rare Jigen in drag… What doesn’t episode 13 have? In all seriousness, though, 1.13 does a lot of work to depict the Lupin gang as a loving, dysfunctional family, which will become a stronger theme in future series, especially as Goemon settles into his role as a main character. Also, I’m just a sucker for the Lupin family being super concerned for each other’s well-being, so any episode built around that is gonna get high marks from me.
Episode 21: Rescue the Tomboy!
This episode is queer in a bit of a different way from my other recommendations: Instead of focusing on any of our usual main characters, “Rescue the Tomboy!” is about Lupin’s father (Lupin II) and his partner (whose child’s fate happens to fall to Lupin). Though we see very few Lupin II/partner interactions firsthand, the Lupin/Jigen parallels are clear, so this is one small and self-contained story that’s worth casting a queerly analytic eye over.
Episodes You Should Skip for Your Own Sanity
None! Every episode of Lupin III: Part 1 is a well-executed treat. Go forth and enjoy all 23 of them.
1. For a look at Japanese literature’s recent-ish history of conflating queerness and criminality, I highly recommend checking out Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishonen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature by Jeffrey Angles, which focuses on literary queerness in the work of several prominent crime and mystery writers in early twentieth-century Japan.