When I volunteered for this project, I looked to see which years were still available. Only a few were still up for grabs, so I looked up which anime came out in the years that were still available and volunteered for the first one that had a title that I recognized, which ended up being the year 1971. The title that I had recognized was Lupin the Third. However, I had never watched any anime older than the ‘90s, so this was an adventure into unknown territory for me where I learned a lot and exposed myself to anime that I ordinarily would not have given much thought to.
The immediate indication that Lupin the Third is a significant instance in anime history is the new revival of the franchise in the form of the 2012 series Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. If Lupin the Third is able to still be relevant to today’s audience, then it must be significant in some way, and I made it my job to learn why it was. Pushing off from Lupin the Third, I then investigated which other anime that came out during that year had the most information available. It quickly came out that one other series, of a vastly different genre, could hold a candle up to Lupin the Third—Marvelous Melmo, a magical girl anime geared towards children.
Granted, there are other shows that came out in 1971 that didn't hold an impact to Western fandom as much as Lupin the Third and Marvelous Melmo. Wandering Sun, a drama covering the story of two women switched at birth, was more significant for its production staff, as it united Yoshiyuki Tomino and Yasuhiko Yoshikazu before their venture with the Mobile Suit Gundam manga. Tensai Bakabon, a comedy series about a boy and his father who isn’t all that bright, has been a memorable show, mostly in the minds of pachinko fans. While there were other shows that debuted that year—Sarutobi Ecchan, a magical girl anime; Hyppo and Thomas, a comedy about a hippopotamus and a bird; Andersen Monogatari, a fantasy series aimed at children and based on the Hans Christian Andersen tales—there were really only two shows to cover.
That said, let’s dive right in.
Lupin the Third began as a three-month contract project for the manga artist, Kazuhito Katô, who was given the pen name "Monkey Punch" by his editor. (While "Monkey Punch" had never been Kazuhito’s idea, neither he nor his editor had intended for him to keep it. Due to Lupin the Third’s popularity, however, keeping the pen name was made a necessity.) It was a fan extension of a series of French novels about a thief named Arséne Lupin, who Lupin the Third is named after and related to. The initial air date of the series was October 24, 1971, and the series continued into March of 1972.
Arséne Lupin III is a thief and master of disguise, pulling grand heists, showing up the competition, infuriating the police, and chasing women. His partner in crime is Daisuke Jigen, whose skills include marksmanship, and they are frequently aided and foiled by Fujiko Mine, a mysterious woman who has a habit of double-crossing. Several episodes in, they are joined by Goemon Ishikawa, a proud samurai who wears his national pride on his sleeve. All four are chased by Detective Zenigata, who has made it his life goal to capture Lupin.
However, Goemon is only in a few episodes by the end of December of 1971, so the twelve episodes that aired before January of 1972 were mostly about Lupin and Fujiko, with Jigen firmly being a side character with incredible loyalty to Lupin. Fujiko is a femme fatale that Lupin cannot get enough of, despite her numerous betrayals and self-serving nature. She is the only consistent female character in the series, and her motivations and desires are firmly a mystery, mostly due to contradictory characterization from episode to episode as the show switches directors.
From watching the episodes, it is easy to see why Lupin the Third has the appeal that it does. Monkey Punch himself has said that Lupin is a character who gets what he wants and is not restrained by laws. He is a rascally character who does not bend to the will of others. He is prideful, cunning, and determined—seemingly the perfect escapist fantasy. He always gets the woman, but women seem to be his only weakness. My very first impression of Lupin and the series, before I did any research and watched the first episode for the first time, was that he was an anime James Bond. (But did 007 ever do any of his capers in his striped underwear? Don't answer that. - Ed.)
While Lupin the Third is a matured series that occasionally delves into Lupin's childish desires, Marvelous Melmo (Fushigi na Merumo), on the other hand, is a separate genre entirely, targeted at a different age group and gender identity. Marvelous Melmo was one of the many series by Osamu Tezuka, and its intended purpose was to teach children about puberty.
This isn't as much a spoiler as it is a unifying plot device, but Marvelous Melmo starts with Melmo’s mother dying from an accident and going to Heaven. In Heaven, she is granted one wish, and her wish is for her children to be fully grown and be able to take care of themselves. Heaven makes a compromise and gives Melmo a bottle full of blue and red pills: swallowing a blue pill makes the person ten years older, red de-ages them ten years. With these pills, Melmo is able to be her little brothers’ guardian and go on adventures. She uses her aging and de-aging abilities to take her adversaries off-guard and to weasel out of certain situations. The pills also have the ability to turn her into an animal. The type of animal she can turn into does not appear to be consistent, but it is the least of the anime’s confusing plot points.
Viki Anime's YouTube page in a "renewal" version.
(Marvelous Melmo is more significant for the impact it had on audiences at the time than later in history. Its main competition that year was Sarutobi Ecchan, Shôtarô Ishinomori's attempt at a cross between ninjas and a magical-girl anime. While Melmo has lasted significantly longer than Ecchan, Ecchan did introduce the "talking magical-girl anime pet" to the genre.)
However, both Fujiko and Melmo are defined by their sexuality. Fujiko is Lupin’s main love interest and the woman who plays the hardest to get and uses her feminine wiles to her advantage, but in the first two episodes that feature Goemon, Fujiko is Goemon’s girlfriend instead of Lupin’s, and Fujiko has many boyfriends who come to challenge Lupin. It is her most effective weapon against her enemies, and it gets her out of the most trouble. In comparison, Melmo, after she takes the blue pill and becomes a woman instead of a little girl, is very attractive to many men who meet her, and in the second episode she gets the job of a stewardess just by looking pretty. Marriage and baby-making are treated as though it is the most important thing in Marvelous Melmo, while many derisive comments are made towards Fujiko about how she gets involved in men’s work and does not behave like a woman should outside of her sexual activity in Lupin the Third. Very specific, sex-related gender roles are assigned to Melmo and Fujiko, and it is the first thing that stands out in both series.
Perhaps these two shows pale in comparison to the sensitive sexual matter in future anime shows, but much like how teens discovered themselves after years of maturing, both Lupin the Third and Marvelous Melmo showed that anime had discovered its own sexuality in short time.
(Next time: Robots! Devils! Ninjas! 1972! Cool catch phrase goes here!)