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Arsène Lupin and Phantom Thieves

Updated: Apr 9

When you hear the words ‘master thief’ in modern Japanese media, you will most likely think of Lupin III. Star of countless manga, anime, and film series, Lupin is the definite trendsetter of the various master thieves you see in other anime series, accompanied by his equally iconic supporting characters (including the femme fatale Fujiko Mine, the ronin Goemon, the gunslinger Jigen, and the inspector Zenigata). He's so iconic that we've even covered him in another post! But are you familiar with the original character that this iconic dame-chasing, disguise-wearing thief is based on?


In the early 20th century, stories revolving around great detective characters (such as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot) were massively popular. As such, a French author by the name of Maurice Leblanc decided to do the exact opposite: write stories centering on the criminal. And thus the Arsène Lupin novels were born. Each novel recounts the heists of the titular character Arsène Lupin, a sharp-dressed master thief with a taste for priceless pieces of fine art and historical artifacts. Lupin is notable for his gentlemanly behavior, habit of leaving calling cards for his victims, aversion to violence, and smoothness with the ladies. He is also an indisputable master of disguise: in each novel both the characters and the readers are left constantly wondering who Lupin has disguised himself as in the story. The victim’s guest? The detective’s assistant? Or perhaps even… the Narrator himself?


Always be vigilant around this handsome rogue.


Arsène Lupin’s biggest legacy is the creation and codification of two types of unusual thieves: the ‘gentleman thief’ and the ‘phantom thief’, two distinct but related characters. The gentleman thief is defined by his charming manners, immaculate sense of style, and sense of honour. The phantom thief is defined by his mastery of illusions and disguise, as well as his penchant for seemingly-impossible heists. Lupin is both of these thieves at once, and more often than not, so are the characters influenced by him. This includes his fictional Japanese grandson of the same name, Arsène Lupin III, who is the definite gold standard of master thieves in anime.


Created by Monkey Punch, the Lupin III franchise is unquestionably popular in Japan, having been going strong for over forty (40) years! It is so influential and ubiquitous that a great many anime and manga series reference the Japanese Lupin and his supporting characters instead of the original French one. For example, in Soul Eater Death refers to a Kishin as ‘Lupin’ in his introductory episode, and Kyon uttered Goemon's catchphrase at one point in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya’s Endless Eight. Tomo of Azumanga Daioh fame idolizes Fujiko Mine. Meanwhile, major Cowboy BeBop characters are homages to Lupin and the crew, with Spike himself as Lupin, Jet as Jigen, Faye as Fujiko, and Vicious as Goemon. Even in the wacky FLCL, Naota’s dad dressed like classic Lupin and discussed jacket colors in Episode Five.


The Crew, from left to right: Goemon Ishikawa XIII, Daisuke Jigen, Arsène Lupin III, Fujiko Mine, and Inspector Koichi Zenigata.


Outside of Japan the franchise is also well-known, but special mention must go to Italy, where the franchise is downright legendary! As an example, Italy was the only country outside of Japan to see a legal release of the original anime series prior to 2013. There is also a way of holding a cigarette in one's mouth at a certain angle known as 'Jigen-style' in Italian slang. Furthermore, the fifth Lupin series (and the first to focus on the man himself in over three decades) is not only set in Italy, it premiered in Italy, before it was even shown in its native homeland of Japan! How cool is that?


This is not to say that Leblanc’s original suave stealer isn’t well-known without Lupin III’s influence, however. Heck, that Lupin isn’t even the only fictional descendant of the French thief in anime, as Riko from Hidan no Aria is supposed to be the original Lupin’s great-granddaughter (fun fact: her full name is Riko Mine Lupin IV, which implies that Fujiko Mine is her mother). Even going beyond bloodline, the gentlemanly phantom thief (Japanese: 怪盗, 'kaitō') is a well-established trope in Japanese media thanks to him. Characters who owe their existence to the legendary French thief include Kaitō Kid in Magic Kaito and Detective Conan, Dark in D.N.Angel, Phantom Thief Kuiaran in Gosick, Psiren in the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist series, and Tuxedo Mask in Sailor Moon, especially the manga.


Phantom Thieves in anime come in black or white; sharp suit mandatory.


And of course, we must mention the recent hit video game Persona 5, which is currently being adapted into an anime series. Not only does the story place the spotlight squarely on the phantom thief trope, the protagonist's first Persona is named Arsène after the legendary phantom himself, and his living quarters is called Cafe Leblanc, named after Lupin author Maurice Leblanc. From French literature to Japanese animation and video games, it’s safe to say Arsène Lupin has stolen the hearts of millions throughout the century.

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