The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is the Best Anime of the Decade

Trying to crown a “best” anime series of the past decade is no easy task. Do you prioritize a series that’s a superbly written multigenerational drama that tragically only reached a small audience, like Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju? One that birthed an entirely new subgenre and spawned dozens of imitators that overwhelmingly failed to live up to the original, like Puella Magi Madoka Magica? A juggernaut that broke into public consciousness outside of anime fandom and was a milestone in normalizing queer relationships, like Yuri!!! On ICE? Or even a title so beautifully, inexplicably bizarre and nonsensical that it helped murder an entire studio, like Samurai Flamenco?

All of these are viable approaches, but none quite lead to the correct answer. Which is, objectively, that Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is the best anime of the decade. It’s not only a landmark installment in one of Japan’s longest-running anime franchises, not just a major flashpoint in the career of a now-major director, but a breathtakingly stylish, subversive, and unique narrative. 

A Brief History of Lupin

Lupin III (or Lupin the Third, or Lupin the 3rd, depending on the release), is a big deal in Japan. The story of the gentleman thief and his gang of associates began as a manga in 1967 and became the first adult-targeted anime in 1971. The dark, psychedelic early episodes of the show were a miserable flop. Less than ten episodes in, young hopefuls Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (later founders of Studio Ghibli) came in and retooled the series as a more slapstick, all-ages caper affair. Even that retool couldn’t keep the series running for longer than 23 episodes, though, and it wasn’t until the surprise success of the live-action film Strange Psychokinetic Strategy in 1974 that the franchise found its footing.

1977’s Lupin III Part II hit a PG-13 sweet spot between the earliest chapters of the manga, where Lupin is often an out-and-out rapist, and the G-rated stylings of Miyazaki, and it clicked in a big way. Part II ran weekly for three years, airing 155 episodes, and with a few exceptions its take on the character would define the movies, specials, and TV series that followed. Over the course of 30 years, a certain Lupin began to take shape: fast-talking and flirtatious, the kind of handsy guy who would lay off if he somehow magically sensed when a woman “really” meant no; loyal when it counted and smarter than everyone else in the room, but still likely to lose the big score to circumstance or his clever sometimes-love interest Fujiko Mine.

There is also one more thing that’s true of Lupin III: despite spanning 228 episodes, six feature films, two OVAs, and 23 annual specials between 1971 and 2011, during all this time the franchise never had a female director.

A Woman Named Yamamoto  

While these days she’s best known for Yuri!!! On ICE, in 2011 Yamamoto had just finished her directorial debut Michiko & Hatchin. The action-oriented series bore the influence of her work with Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo) at Studio MADHOUSE, and it caught the eye of Telecom Animation Film CEO Yuu Kiyozono. He asked her to create a project of a similar nature for the Lupin franchise’s 40th anniversary and Yamamoto agreed — as long as Fujiko got to be the protagonist. “When I was little I basically used to watch Lupin just to see Fujiko’s sexy scenes,” Yamamoto said. “I thought that if the theme is ‘I want to look at Fujiko for the whole time,’ then I would be able to create that.”

Lupin III is not a franchise one goes to for consistency. While some series can be said to take place at certain points in the characters’ lives — Lupin III Part 1 includes some “how they met” stories, while Cagliostro has an older-and-wiser “last job” feel to it — the cast simultaneously exists in comic book time relative to the outside world, and the core cast’s characterization can vary wildly depending on the writer. Is Lupin basically noble or stubbornly petty? Is Inspector Zenigata a rival who can catch any non-Lupin criminal, or is he an incompetent buffoon? How moe is stoic swordsman Goemon this week? Right-hand gunman Jigen gets the best of it, give or take how simmeringly jealous he’s likely to be about Lupin’s weakness for women. And Fujiko? Well, she gets the worst.

No doubt part of that comes down to the earliest chapters of the manga, where every woman who appeared was named “Fujiko Mine.” That was quickly discarded, but her origin as The Girl has always loomed over Fujiko’s character, and depictions of her can be nearly unrecognizable between versions. This is true not just of her characterization — like how willing she is to leave the guys in danger versus just playing them for fools, how willing she is to do her own dirty work, how competent she is in a crisis, and the exact tone of her relationship with Lupin — but of her actual physical appearance. Beyond some cookie-cutter femme fatale traits, Fujiko is whoever the writer needs her to be for their Lupin story. And while The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is loaded with references to other entries in the franchise throughout the years, that fact more than any other informs its unique identity.

Who is Fujiko Mine?

Yamamoto’s series fixes itself in time. Though made in the new millennium, its setting is firmly that of the Cold War that so influenced the franchise’s most popular entries. It’s also an origin story, informed by relationships as they’re presented in the first episodes of Lupin III Part I. Young, arrogant upstart Lupin is the same thief who nonchalantly sends men to their deaths and whom Jigen was afraid would set him on fire as a joke. Goemon provides some of the show’s comedic breather moments while also explaining how he came to consider Fujiko his “girlfriend” in Part I. Zenigata’s change from good-hearted goof to sleazy corrupt cop proved most controversial, combining the vindictive sneering of the early manga with the soft-pedaled paternalism of some of his later appearances into a sharp but misogynistic bastard dripping in toxic masculinity.

It’s a fascinating balancing act that both invites in new viewers who might have been intimidated by the franchise’s history or turned off by the elements that have aged poorly while also rewarding a familiarity with that same body of work — specifically, those long-time watchers who were reading the series’ takes on gender and sexuality critically. As for its narrative, while previous Lupin series were almost entirely episodic, barring a few two-parters, TWCFM uses each of its apparently stand-alone episodes to build towards its central question: just who is Fujiko Mine?

Each of the men she meets early on offers their own take on the archetype she embodies: to Lupin she’s a prize but also a rival, one he genuinely begins to respect; to Jigen she’s a self-serving snake, proof that women can’t be trusted; to Goemon she’s a walking Madonna/Whore complex, someone he wants to protect so she’s no longer “forced” to seduce others; to Zenigata she’s a lesser being, a sexual object and tool he can use in pursuit of his real rivalry with Lupin.

Each of these men is convinced they know the “real” Fujiko. But rather than her popping into their adventures, here they’re only players in hers, and following Fujiko as the protagonist quickly reveals their impressions — each drawn from a franchise entry somewhere — as shallow and incomplete. That alone is an appealing reversal of the formula, but it wouldn’t be enough to crown this the anime of the decade. Fortunately, there’s still the overarching narrative to get to.

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The Owls Are Not What They Seem

Throughout the series, something else is watching Fujiko: the owls of Count Luis Yu Almeda, a sinister being determined to control her by forcibly writing the narrative of her life. At this point, I would be remiss not to mention two things: series composer (a position roughly similar to head writer) Mari Okada, to my knowledge also the first time a woman has held that position in the Lupin franchise; and the show’s twist ending.

While Sayo Yamamoto brought her sharp eye for structure and visual craft to the series, with its beautifully stylized noir atmosphere and stylized surrealism, she credits Okada with bringing the story’s intensity. Okada’s writing is easily distinguishable by its go-big-or-go-home emotions, which can quickly turn stilted or absurd in the wrong hands. But with Yamamoto in the director’s chair, Okada’s often angry style is sharpened to an incisive, merciless point.

While I highly recommend watching the series without foreknowledge of its conclusion, discussing what makes this plot so special requires laying it bare. As the series progresses, Almeda’s owls become a more and more intrusive force in Fujiko’s life, seeking to “unlock” the memories of a traumatic past wherein she was physically and sexually abused under Almeda’s care, becoming a brazenly sexual thief to hide her trauma. It’s a story that’s bound to be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a male-directed story attempting to retroactively “explain” a femme fatale, or really any woman with sexual agency. Which is why it’s so important that in Fujiko’s case, this backstory is complete bullshit.

There was, in fact, a little girl who was abused by Count Almeda in his attempt to create a “perfect” child bride, her memories repeatedly overwritten as he stole both her physical and emotional agency — and these memories are treated with the appropriate horror and gravitas without a sexualized gaze. That girl, unable to cope after Almeda’s death, then disguised herself in his image to recreate her trauma on others, perpetuating the cycle of abuse and uploading her own memories into a new generation — of which Fujiko, the only adult, was the (supposed) only survivor.

It’s a fantastic grace note to a trippy ride of a story, but more than that it’s one hell of a meta commentary: about patriarchal control of women’s agency, about the deliberate crafting of exploitation narratives, about how marginalized voices are stolen and supplanted even when their supposed “real stories” are being told. And in the end, Fujiko walks free of it all, breaking those cycles with a determination to live however the hell she wants.

This is all without getting into Okada’s new addition to the cast, Lieutenant Oscar, the other probable survivor of Aisha’s experiments and a lens through which the story touches on both the homophobia of the era and of the genres the story is exploring. It does a disservice to mention him so briefly, but it’s also a testament to just how many thematic layers the series explores. That it executes them all in twelve tightly written, gorgeously directed episodes makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.

While TWCFM injected new life into the Lupin franchise, Yamamoto’s series has been somewhat relegated to obscurity. The distribution license in the US was lost without any forewarning earlier this year, and franchise fans often dismiss it as an outlier at best and outright terrible at worst. Whether its dark tone is to your individual taste or not, that’s simply absurd.

In one short season, Fujiko Mine reinvigorated its core franchise, reframed that franchise in a critical but still ultimately fond lens, explored narrative themes relating to gender and sexuality with a skill reserved for the likes of Revolutionary Girl Utena, and looked damn good doing it. What else could one possibly call it but the best of the decade?