Review: The Secret of Mamo (1978)

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With a new, apparently rebooted Lupin III tv series due to start any time now, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look back at a past adventure for anime’s beloved gentleman-thief.  Having written many moons ago about Hayao Miyzaki’s Castle of Cagliostro, an absolute classic and probably the best known Lupin film in the west, I thought this time, I’d look at something very different.

Predating Cagliostro by barely a year, 1978’s Secret of Mamo begins with Lupin witnessing his own apparent execution in Transylvania.  Narrowly avoiding the grasp of long-time nemesis Inspector Zenigata, Lupin is subsequently dragged into the hunt for the Philosopher’s Stone, an ancient artifact said to hold the key to eternal life.  While he believes he is recovering the treasure in a bid to impress his sometime-lover Fujiko, it turns out that Fujiko has merely duped him into doing the job and he soon finds her in league with Mamo, a reclusive, Howard Hughes-style billionaire, quietly manipulating world events in his feverish quest for eternal life.

I first saw this film shortly after Cagliostro, and, knowing next to nothing about the franchise, I made the crucial mistake of expecting it to be another sweet natured, family-friendly caper about a loveable rogue.  Oh boy, is it ever not that.  Straight from the off, it’s clear that Secret of Mamo was shooting for a very different audience; the humour is more risque, the violence is more explicit and what starts out as a familiarly James Bond-esque storyline quickly goes to some very strange places indeed.

While it isn’t a direct adaptation, this iteration of Lupin draws far more heavily from both the original manga and the (then current) tv depiction of his character, portraying him as sleazier and more morally grey.  The narrative is far more fractured and can seem like a series of only vaguely related set-pieces for the first while (it almost feels like the writers had a bet about how many exotic locations they could make Lupin visit) yet, it does have a strong backbone in its unusually disharmonious depiction of Lupin’s gang.  This snapshot of a strained partnership on the cusp of breaking brings a dramatic weight to the story so often lacking from later entries.  Equally well handled is Lupin’s awkward relationship with Fujiko; dragging what is so often a cheap plot device right to the very forefront of the story and developing it into something wholly believable.

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Opinions differ on how well Mamo has aged visually, but I feel it holds up rather well.  At the time, this was Japan’s most expensive animated feature ever produced (a sign of just how popular the franchise had become) and the animation still looks fluid and fresh.  It can’t quite capture the grandeur that Miyazaki was soon to bring to the table, but there’s an earthy, sun-bleached quality to the film’s setting that suits it perfectly and, as it drives ever further into psychedelic territory during the second act, it manages some memorably, powerfully weird images, as Lupin becomes ever more ensnared by Mamo’s web.

The film does show its age in some of its attitudes, and the third-act shift into science-fiction (no doubt influenced in part by some other starry film that was out around that time) seems to put some people off, but, once I was able to accept that the darker, wilder Lupin is every bit as valid as the honourable gentleman-thief, I really began to appreciate Secret of Mamo and would easily rank it as one of the franchise’s finest hours.

Mamo was released on DVD in the UK and can be picked up for next to nothing, but the most recent US disc from Discotek is definitely the one to buy, featuring their typically extensive liner notes and all four (!) English-language dub-tracks for the film.

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