Lupin III: Return of Pycal

Most American anime fans weren't alive when the first Lupin III adventure aired back in 1971...including me! Having spanned hundreds of television episodes, several films, a live-action variation, and many OVA and TV specials, Lupin III is an institution that predates even the old goliaths like Mobile Suit Gundam. However, with that much material, some tales are bound to be weaker than others. That's true of Lupin III: Return of Pycal, a special that brings back a villain so old virtually no American fan even knows of him. Although Pycal moves at a good clip and avoids the cutesy comedy that can spoil some Lupin III outings, a weak story, poor scripting, and bad CGI really make this one for only the ardent fan.

Pycal starts with a theft, as many Lupin stories do. This time, Lupin crashes a huge party, using naked women as a diversion to steal a priceless crystal. Zenigata is hot on his trail to get it back...but is it really Zenigata? After all, the fearless detective has always wanted to bring in the gentleman thief alive, and this guy's shooting to kill!

Lupin escapes unscathed, and with three crystals in his possession, he heads off to find the other four that are somewhere out and about the globe. The trail leads him to the Orient, where swordsman Goemon is soundly defeating all challengers in a fierce competition that appears to be running until everybody's dead or bored. The old man who runs the one-on-one duels knows the secret of the crystals--brought together, they can cause great healing or great destruction. Lupin figures out that his old enemy Pycal is holding several of the other crystals and was the disguised Zenigata. But Pycal is not an easy rival to pin down and there will be no peace until all the crystals come together in a final showdown.

Whenever I sit down to watch a Lupin adventure, I'm always hoping for the best. After all, these characters have participated in some of my favorite films of all time! Pycal starts off well, with a smartly directed opening sequence. But from there, we head downhill. Although the story makes enough sense, the transitions between them feel disconnected and strangely empty. We are never really given an explanation to Pycal's character, so we barely understand how he does the things he does (except to know that some of his powers come from his body's extreme aversion to daylight). Then there's the matter of "music as healing" that plays throughout the show. It's just a dumb idea, and the confrontation between Pycal and Lupin becomes a musical battle right out of the disastrous Macross 7.

I was also surprised at the amount of gratuitous fan service on display in Return of Pycal. There have always been a few moments of flesh in most Lupin adventures, but this one has more of its fair share for the main program lasting only about 40 minutes. Some people like skin...I know, I know. But it's not at all natural here. What I mean is that the fan service is thrown in intentionally without regard for the plot. I don't mind sexuality in my anime per se. I do mind it when it serves no purpose other than to turn on some juvenile fanboy.

Pycal also has problems in the animation department. The character artwork looks just fine, and that's not distracting. However, there seem to be some weird budgetary constraints afoot. First is the use of still shots to convey action in several cases. Now it looks cool the way it's done, and I'm not arguing that point. But how much better these scenes would have been if they had just been animated! The second is the blatant use of CGI. There are CGI birds, CGI boulders, CGI this, CGI that. One sequence, an homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, looks terribly bad. The gigantic boulder doesn't look like it exists in the same universe as the animated characters! I love CGI when it adds flavor, as I became even more aware rewatching Cowboy Bebop recently. But here, it's like going back and watching Tron. No, wait, I take that back...Tron did it better too.

After recently watching First Contact, which in my mind may be the perfect Lupin movie, I had high expectations. Return of Pycal does not live up to them. It's far from plain terrible, but in the grand scheme of my Lupin watching over the years, this is one of the worst.

Lupin III: Return of Pycal -- nudity, violence -- C