The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is a tempest of strong art direction and production values which, when combined with a harsh narrative, adult themes and often shockingly brutal character moments, reinvigorates this age old franchise with a fresh, though at times indulgent, direction.
Plot synopsis: Fujiko Mine is a master thief. Figure everything else out yourself.
The Woman Called Fujiko Mine takes a similar approach to Fate/Zero in its introduction by first showing the audience the tone of the series and character dynamics before offering much in the way of narrative meat or personal dilemmas. Like in the case of Zero, this results in the earlier sections of the series feeling overdone, even gratuitous, with the drugs and sex making themselves known before the underlying thematic nature has an opportunity to present itself. It felt as thought the writers were intent on immediately proving themselves rather than bringing former fans, and new ones, into the franchise with the easy grace that Lupin III (2015) was able to pull off so seamlessly. However, once the shockingly edgy first episode is out of the way, the series becomes surprisingly grounded in character motivations, with the nudity and violence, while not quite diminished, feeling much more warranted due to stronger emotional expression and proper build-up.
Though most of the composition was handled by Mari Okada (Toradora, Nagi no Asukara) renowned for her emotionally charged style of dialogue, the series is generally quite restrained in terms of pathos. The overarching story line, most of which was written by Okada herself, focuses on the history of Fujiko Mine and answers, in detail, “Who is this woman called Fujiko Mine?” Over this story line, the Lupin trio (Lupin, Jigen and Goemon) meet up and alternately work with and against Fujiko as she gradually becomes more caught up in the affairs of the mysterious owl figures. One of the major credits to this story line is that it allows the viewer to learn information through symbolism and history and stay on the same page as Lupin and friends, retroactively making the comparatively detail-murky earlier episodes feel more substantial and the later ones feel larger in scope.
Ironically, the weakest episodes were those handled by writer Sato Dai (Ergo Proxy, Wolf’s Rain), whose Goemon-focused episodes, though fine episodic adventures that pad out the series’ length, lack the sense of excitement or dread of those handled by Okada or her contemporaries. Of the episodic episodes (most not written by Okada herself and unrelated to the overarching plot), Itsuko Miyoshi (ep 2) delivers an emotionally stirring introduction of Jigen, with a grave and piercing atmosphere of adult love that stands out as an instant classic, and Junji Nishimura (ep 8) opened the doors for the sinister antagonists of the series to be pursued and closed on one of the most stirring character moments of the entire series. The other episodic adventures are all certainly worth watching, focusing more on Lupin, Jigen and Goemon than Fujiko, but they do give the 13 episodes story on the whole a greater sense of time passing and the excellent art direction never lets up.
As good as some of the accompanying adventures are, the overarching narrative is the real selling point of The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and will doubtlessly be what most viewers will take away from it. Presumably, one of the major contributors to the way in which the series addresses series issues such as child abuse and long term psychological damage was Director Sayo Yamamoto, who’s body of work includes several Manglobe series that deal with address similar problems, such as Ergo Proxy and Michiko and Hatchin (both of which, coincidentally, have similarly stoic female leads). Like those series, The Woman is able to display powerful character moments, such as cold blooded murder or betrayal, with pin-point precision and articulation, which is especially effective in the aforementioned episode 8. Despite Okada’s involvement, there are surprisingly few melodramatic or emotionally flamboyant moments, saved instead for the major reveals and dilemmas rather than a constant method of keeping the audience interested.
Most of the characters of The Woman Called Fujiko Mine are, at their core, the same as they have always been, both in their relationships with each other and the manner in which they operate. However, their actions are presented through the lense of an adult, resulting in what may have been funny for a younger audience instead feeling alien, even threatening. Lupin is still a wise-cracking goofy detective with a knack of being in the same place as Fujiko and usually duping her, though the way in which the series presents him makes him feel a bit more unhinged than is safe. Jigen is Lupin’s gruff and serious partner, though the aforementioned context from episode 2 lends tragic overtones to his thoughts and actions. Goemon is largely unchanged, though as he has always had a nonchalant personality changes to him weren’t really needed. Fujiko Mine, the star of this anime, is still the dubious femme fatale she’s always been, however the adult storyline and choices she has to make causes her to act more as a merciless victim of tragedy, akin to Faye Valentine, than a Mary Sue. The development with her is mostly expressed in several key moments, and doesn’t really cut to the same depth as the aforementioned Bebop member, though the problems she is faced with, and the decisions she makes in response, do more than enough for her inner-tortured child to be a palpable influence.
It’s Inspector Zenigata, the Coyote to Lupin’s Road Runner, who feels like a completely different character. Usually, he acts as a punching bag for slap stick comedy, throwing his hat on the ground and stamping on it as he exclaims “Lupin!” as the thief evades him once more. Not so here, where his cold utilitarianism drains any possibility of comedic interaction with the cast members and his few relatively scarce appearances being overshadowed by a character unique to this story, Oscar. Oscar is a subordinate who harbours deep feelings of trust and even affection to Zenigata and is a formidable opponent in his own right, being one of the few characters to outright humiliate Fujiko. However, as the nature of his past is revealed and the depth of his emotions are explained, Zenigata feels less like a moustache-twirling maniac and more like a stone cold psychopath. It’s an understandable decision for the sake of the maintenance of tonal consistency, though it takes away a potential source of levity in a story the could probably have used more of it. Additionally, it feels somewhat redundant, as the mysterious owl organisation provides more than enough intimidation for the series to justify it’s dark tone and thematic material. He doesn’t disrupt the flow of the series, but he doesn’t particularly add anything to it either.
The stylistic choices and art direction in The Woman Called Fujiko Mine are some of the most illustrious of any TV Anime this decade, and are a large part of why this entry enticed many people into the franchise. Character designs are very detailed, with each frame painting the many lines and creases in hair and clothing, and details such as facial structure, height and body curvature being consistently maintained from the first episode to the last. Each episode brings with it new and memorable costume designs, be it those of a prestigious school or a festival, there is no shortage of memorable set pieces along the way, particularly in the latter half of the series. The series also makes use of shadowing on the characters at most times, and while this does border on distracting at times, it also greatly helps to provide and overbearing and appropriate sense of foreboding.
The actual animation quality itself isn’t quite up to par with the art direction, though is nonetheless certainly above average. Character movements are generally fluid despite their strong detail, and there are many moments where the character movements are unapologetically outstanding. Beyond the action scenes, of which there are plenty, the visual presentation is also capable of being nuanced and communicating a surprising amount of emotion through expressions and deliberate body movements. The effects are also to die for, with the petals in particular ominously floating in the wind with the grace of a swan and the various wind and spark effects associated bullets allowing the fast-paced action scenes to feel legitimately threatening. The use of symbolism is poignant and well placed, with the omnipresent owls representing femininity and fertility in a context that presents them as belittling and threatening to Fujiko’s entire being. An entire episode (episode 11) is spend navigating a labyrinth of child story-like set pieces and the juxtaposition of innocent imagery with blood and pain gives the whole experience a psychedelic undertone.
A point of controversy with this series was the highly sexual nature of its presentation of femme fatale Fujiko Mine. It’s easy to see from where these complaints may have stemmed; Lupin III had always been a family oriented series, at least in its adaptations, and though there were always sexual undertones, occasionally overtones, to Fujiko’s exploits, they never approached the racy magnitude with which they are depicted here. However, given that uncensored murders and child abuse are presented here, the sexual nature of Fujiko works simultaneously as a way of making her a tonal fit for the emotional core of The Woman’s grim atmosphere and a more dangerous character willing to reveal herself for an increased chance of riches, it fits well with the story being told here. This is a rare case of sexual elements being presented well in an anime; not to fetishise a character for the viewer or put them in a vulnerable position, but rather to express their confidence and shameless nature. Nonetheless, there are a few very specific moments where the imagery depicted borders on sexual exploitation (in particular a certain wine bath) though thankfully the nudity in general is mostly gone by the final third.
The audio presentation doesn’t quite match the quality of the visuals, though it does fit the series to which it is attached. The OP lets viewers know what they’re getting into right off the bat, with splendid orchestration to the voices of either Miyuki Sawashiro (or Michelle Ruff) explaining Fujiko’s dilemma to some very detailed symbolism and nudity that will doubtlessly make many viewers feel uncomfortable. The ED is even worse in terms of how uncomfortable it is, depicting a young Fujiko in suggestive positions, but whatever (completely justifiable) misgiving the audience may initially have with it are contextualised as the events of the series transpire, causing the ED to transition from simply uncomfortable to tragic. The song itself isn’t quite anything worth praising, but the Jazz instrumentation is quite a pleasant listen. The soundtrack itself takes on a sharper, more adult tone with a slower tempo than what may be found in Lupin‘s tamer installments (which would be all of them), matching the more emotionally sophisticated nature of Fujiko Mine while still retaining the Italian charm of Lupin.
The Japanese voice cast for the central cast are a mixed bag of returning VAs from other Lupin III entries and those who entered the franchise through this installment. Jigen has the same voice actor, Kobayashi Kiyoshi, as he’d had for more than 40 years prior to the release of The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and Lupin’s voice actor, , though not quite as old, had played the character for several years prior to this. Fujiko Mine is played here, for the first time, by the esteemed and popular Miyuki Sawashiro, while Goemon’s Daisuke Ono also debuts here (both continued in Lupin III 2015). The more masculine inflections to Fujiko’s voice provide a good contrast to the feminine nature of the anime and adds a level of professionalism to her that would have been difficult to express otherwise.
The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is available for legal purchase from Madmen entertainment in Australia.