Based on a series created by Monkey Punch, which dates back to 1967, the film follows a charismatic thief, as he battles with Nazis over control of a mysterious artifact. The first feature-length Lupin film produced in over 20 years, Yamazaki’s latest would also be the first to bring the titular character into the medium of 3DCG animation.
Naturally, the director felt a great deal of responsibility, when he was handed control of a storied franchise and its ever-popular protagonist. “But the great part is that different creators have worked on him, so Lupin really has a wide range of what kind of character he could be,” Yamazaki says. “So, I was really able to express him freely, the way I could.”
In shaping the project—which was released by Toho in Japan, and by GKIDS in North America—the director enjoyed creative liberty in many respects. However, he knew going in that he would have to take great care with character design, as he transitioned Lupin into a 3DCG world. “We had to try our best to keep the feel of his character the same as how the audience would see it in a two-dimensional, hand-drawn animation,” he notes.
Below, Yamazaki breaks down the inspirations behind Lupin III: The First, the challenges of visually adapting Lupin for 3DCG, and the projects he’s taking on next.
DEADLINE: How did you come to direct Lupin III: The First? And what excited you about doing so?
TAKASHI YAMAKAZI: At first, I was just a consultant for the studio, which is Marza. Because I’m friends with Marza, they were asking for my opinion, and because I work for a different studio, I was just writing the script. But then the more I was working on it, the more I got into it, and then it happened that Marza was also looking for a director. I got really attached to this project, so I was really busy, but I decided to do it, and what excited me the most is, Lupin is a character who’s been loved in Japan for a long time. So, then being able to freely come up with the story that I wanted to do was very exciting for me. It was really great that Lupin came into my life.
DEADLINE: How did you envision your take on Lupin? What was the writing process like on the film?
YAMAKAZI: Because I really like [Hayao] Miyazaki’s version of Lupin, Castle of Cagliostro, I wanted to make a story about a trapped girl—a girl who doesn’t have her freedom, and then Lupin comes and saves her. But if I made it completely like Cagliostro, it would be like plagiarism. [Laughs] So, I changed it by completely changing the girl’s personality. Because it was a story made for film, I wanted some dramatic action in the story that lasted for 90 minutes.
What’s unique about Marza in Japan is that once they have a script, they create a storyboard reel, like they do in the United States. So, they create a reel out of the script, and then people watch it and give opinions, and then these opinions that I got back were very harsh. I mean, they’re good, but they really got at the weak parts of the script. So, it was a little bit of a bummer that they were so harsh, but we did that maybe three times. So, we did the reel, I edited the script, and then we made it into a video reel again and edited again. I think by doing that, we were able to get rid of all the weak parts of the script, and I think doing that was worth it, but it was also mentally and physically hard on me.
DEADLINE: Could you elaborate on the process of bringing the Lupin character into a 3D CG world? What kinds of challenges did you encounter?
YAMAKAZI: With Lupin, he’s so complex. Even in 2D animation, there’s various versions of him, so there’s various opinions on which one is really the most ‘Lupin.’ So, what I had the character designer do was create different styles of Lupin. He drew out some looking like a live-action version of Lupin, [and some] in a traditional 2D style, and then everyone decided together on which hand-drawn Lupin was their favorite, or the one that they wanted to go with. Once they decided that, that was just one drawing.
So then from there, because he looks different from different angles, we used a software called ZBrush to create a 3D sculpture of Lupin, so that we could see the different angles. I think we created like three types, and then we voted on which one was the most Lupin-looking of the three. And then, once that was decided, the hard part was really just deciding on all the expressions, because every time he turns, we have to decide on which expression works. So, that was really hard, and I think it took about eight months to figure it out. The riggers worked really hard on this, but we had a sheet with different expressions of Lupin and decided, “Okay, which one are we going to go with?”
That took a long time, and that’s just for one character. We had to do it for all the characters, so the staff worked really hard on this.
DEADLINE: Which of the film’s environments were the most challenging or fun to bring to life?
YAMAKAZI: Difficult scenes are like deserts, or scenes with nothing in it. I think those are really hard to do, or it was hard to get the okay that this was good, because it’s different from live-action, where you go somewhere and just film the thing. You really have to create ‘nothing’ with something, but have it be nothing, so that was really difficult. What was fun was inside the ruins [of Teotihuacan] because I was able to use my imagination freely. The designers had a lot of fun giving their own ideas, so we had a lot of ideas, actually, on what we could do. Because we were able to come up with our own ruins, I think I had a lot of fun with those.
DEADLINE: Were you able to collaborate with Lupin III creator Monkey Punch on the film, prior to his passing in 2019?
YAMAKAZI: Monkey Punch was really looking forward to this version, and I was also really excited to show him, but he died right before it had completed. So, he didn’t get to see it. We didn’t make it in time and I’m really saddened by that, but I do feel that he’s maybe watching from above.
DEADLINE: What would you say you’re most proud of, with regard to Lupin III, now that the film is in your rearview mirror?
YAMAKAZI: I think being able to convert [Lupin] into a gorgeous 3D version without losing any of his elements, any of his quirks, was really my goal—and I think I accomplished it.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you?
YAMAKAZI: I’m working on a couple of projects. One of them is one of those movies for theme park rides, similar to Star Tours or the Harry Potter ride. [The park] is in the suburbs of Toko. It’s actually a pretty old theme park that’s going to be renovated to become a new one. Then, the one I’m working on is going to be probably the main attraction. I can’t give out the details, but it’s something that everyone would probably be excited about.
Then, I’m also working on two different live-action [films], but because of Covid, it’s really hard to say how it’s going to move, if I could get into filming.
DEADLINE: Have you thought about making another Lupin film?
YAMAKAZI: It’s really hard to read [the response to the film] because I guess with Covid, it just really affected the numbers. So, if the producer says he wants to do it, then it might be up to him.