Lupin and his gang of oddball thieves set their sets on one of their biggest hauls yet that takes them all the way to not only the Kingdom of Dorrente, but its high-security super-prison. Lupin and company need to help a renowned thief break out of this prison in order to get their hands on a highly lucrative treasure. However, it looks like Lupin isn’t the only master thief that’s eager for this payout and what’s already a tricky operation suddenly grows considerably more difficult.
Lupin the Third is one of the most celebrated anime franchises of all time and it’s a property that’s not only put in its dues, but is always willing to experiment with some extremely weird and ambitious genre storytelling. At its core, Lupin is a show about thieves, but it’s spent decades proving that it’s more than that, so it’s always exciting to see what some of the larger Lupin the Third spectacles–whether they’re movies or specials–decide to take on. Lupin the Third: Prison of the Past will entertain hardcore fans of the series, but it feels much more representative of an empty safe than one that’s full of riches.
Originally released in 2019, there’s a very simple plot that drives Lupin the Third: Prison of the Past forward that doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel or subvert any expectations. It’s a story that triggers some fun ideas, but it’s really borderline lazy and Prison of the Past does the bare minimum for its characters. In this case, this involves Lupin breaking out an illustrious figure, Finnegan, from a high-security prison so that he can lead them to some legendary relic. If you’ve seen any other extended Lupin adventure then there’s nothing that happens in Prison of the Past that will come as a surprise. It’s paint-by-numbers Lupin the Third, which is disappointing, but it’s also far from the worst that the series has been. Prison of the Past amounts to a playful, enjoyable story that isn’t top tier Lupin the Third, but it still highlights why this franchise has become a cultural touchstone for more than 50 years now.
This larger than life Lupin outing comes from Hatsuki Tsuji, who isn’t a complete newcomer to the heightened gentleman thief series, but he’s someone who is more at home with material that’s geared for children, like Yu-Gi-Oh!, Inazuma Eleven, and Pokémon, which is felt through many of the sillier sequences that are peppered through the special. Lighthearted laughs often seem to be the priority just as much as the action sequences. On that note, Prison of the Past’s opening car chase is one of many entertaining setpieces that the special concocts while Lupin is on the run. It’s an effective introduction to Lupin’s cast for those that may not be well-acquainted with Monkey Punch’s long-enduring action-crime series. Other powerful moments include a tense Mexican standoff, but with cannons and rocket launchers, and later a very thrilling–albeit unnecessary–knife fight that punctuates Prison of the Past’s climax.
As can often be the case in Lupin the Third, Lupin’s theatrics garner the attention of several other rival thieves, all of which have exaggerated get-ups and characteristics. Baron of 100 Beasts and Flying Thief are easily the most fascinating and could fuel their own film, or antagonize an entire season of the series under different circumstances. These caricatures function as Lupin and company’s obstacles as everyone goes all It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World with this prison break heist. That being said, none of these rival thieves are present for long enough to truly be felt as threats and Prison of the Past would benefit from making some of them more integral to the storyline or at least spend more time with them before Lupin and friends make contact with Finnegan.
Another major component of Prison of the Past are a series of highly heightened booby traps that take Lupin’s competition out of the running. These safeguards all feel like they’re pulled out of a Saw movie or are the work of Batman villains. They result in individuals frozen in giant blocks of ice or subjected to fire-breathing robot dogs. Lupin the Third routinely explores hyperbolized ideas, so these sequences aren’t exactly out of place in the Lupin universe. However, they do make Prison of the Past feel more ridiculous and like it shouldn’t be taken as seriously as some of the more dramatic Lupin endeavors.
This is a story where Lupin and his team escape an attack in one scene by blowing a gigantic bubble out of bubblegum and then climbing into it for cover. There are moments here that get dangerously close to a Mamoru Hosoda or Studio Ghibli venture, but don’t quite go far enough, which results in an odd dissonance that’s felt. Lupin even creates a Wilson-esque version of Jigen a la Castaway during the middle of the special when the gang are all segregated.
One of the biggest distractions within Prison of the Past is that some of the series’ characterization feels seriously off, with Zenigata–and even Lupin at times–being huge offenders. At their worst they come across like caricatures or fan fiction accounts of these characters. Before the story is barely even moving Zenigata seems entirely content to have given up on trying to apprehend Lupin and is more than willing to cooperate with the plan at hand. There are many ways that the broader story beats of this could still take place, yet with stronger characterizations across the board where the storyline doesn’t have to feel like such a cheat. Lupin has told similar stories that are far more complex, so the looser nature in Prison of the Past does feel unusual.
What does work and turn into an unexpected highlight is Goemon’s bonding sessions with Berte, another swordsman. Their scenes together function as a tender and pleasant detour that works better than the special even realizes that it does. Another easy highlight through all of this is the humorous dialogue and banter that takes place between Lupin, Jigen, and Goemon, especially once Finnegan gets added to the mix. Lupin often has excellent dialogue and witty banter, but it’s perhaps not a great sign when funny asides and wordplay are more entertaining than the story. Oddly, the special’s conclusion revolves around two side characters, Warden Lorensa and Lord Fio, with Lupin himself almost feeling like an afterthought during the showdown.
The English dub cast assembled for Prison of the Past is one of the highlights of the special and it’s a particularly strong production. Tony Oliver, Richard Epcar, Lex Lang, Doug Erholtz, and Michelle Ruff all return as the series’ iconic collection of characters. They all continue to find more depth to these characters and make them distinctly their own through their performances. Kaiji Von Tang, AmaLee, and Chris Hackney all enter the Lupin-verse as Goro, Lorensa, and Berte, respectively. Everyone is clearly having such fun with these roles, especially when it comes to the many ridiculous supporting criminals that fill the margins of this outing.
The animation in Prison of the Past is honestly gorgeous and another highlight of this special. The fluid look brings these characters to life with such vibrant energy. There’s also a pleasant retro aesthetic with the look of the Kingdom of Dorrente and the notorious El Guille Prison. These environments are just beautiful and the engaging scenes that are set in street markets or explore Dorrente’s nightlife are equally striking. Adding to all of this is Yuji Ohno’s music, which is also quite pleasant and appropriate. The score succeeds with how it enhances the intensity of the action or the emotion that are behind certain pieces of backstory. There’s also 0a very Ennio Morricone-esque track that plays over the finale that’s just excellent.
Lupin the Third: Prison of the Past comes across as low-hanging fruit for a prolific series that has half a century of content under its belt. There’s nothing revelatory in Prison of the Past and it won’t leave the audience gasping from revelations or reeling from plot twists, but it is undeniably playful and entertaining supersized Lupin adventure, which can sometimes be enough. This isn’t the most defining chapter in Lupin the Third’s history and the fandom would have certainly survived if it happened to slip through the cracks, but it’s always nice when overlooked chapters of the sprawling Lupin franchise get filled in as an increasing amount of older movies and specials receive dubs.
‘Lupin the 3rd: Prison of the Past’ will soon be available to digitally rent and purchase