The Passing of Two Manga Greats: Kazuo Koike and Monkey Punch

25 Apr

Earlier this month, two great manga creators died six days apart. Kazuhiko Kato died on April 11 at the age of 81 and Kazuo Koike died on April 17 at the age of 82. Both died of pneumonia. Kato was best known by his pseudonym, Monkey Punch, and was the creator, writer and artist of “Lupin III,” a long-running manga about a not-so-gentleman thief and his band of uniquely skilled sidekicks, that formed the basis for numerous animated TV series, movies and specials made from 1971 to 2018. Kazuo Koike was a writer responsible for some of my favorite manga series, including “Lone Wolf and Cub,” “Crying Freeman” and “Lady Snowblood.” These titles and others he wrote were made into live-action films, TV series and animated films. The two men were sometime rivals whose careers ran parallel to each other and they even collaborated once, as indicated in this paragraph from Anime News Network featuring Koike’s reaction after Kato’s death had been announced:

On Wednesday, Koike posted on Twitter that he and Lupin III creator Monkey Punch were rivals 40 years ago in the Weekly Manga Action magazine when Lupin III and Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub manga were running. Koike also said that he would miss him. Monkey Punch, whose real name is Kazuhiko Katō, passed away on April 11 at 81 years old, also from pneumonia. Koike (under his pen name Keigo Ozuka) and Monkey Punch collaborated as the writer and artist, respectively, on the Secretary Bird manga mini-series in Weekly Manga Action in September 1970.

Significant portions of both men’s work have been published in English.

Monkey Punch:

Kazuo Koike:

Two other series he created with artist Goseki Kojima have been published in English:

Both creators were represented in the book I co-authored with Julie Davis, Anime Classics Zettai: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces, (Stone Bridge Press, 2007) which has sections I contributed on “Lupin III,” covering both movies and TV series from the 1970s to 2000s, and “Crying Freeman,” covering the made-for-video animated series made from 1988 to 1993.

Lupin III

Lupin III was conceived by Kato as the half-Japanese grandson of “gentleman thief” Arsene Lupin, a French literary creation of French author Maurice Leblanc and the subject of numerous live-action films, made from 1909 right up through 2004, both in France and Hollywood. Famous actors who’ve played Arsene Lupin include Melvyn Douglas and John Barrymore (seen below with his co-starring brother, Lionel, in ARSENE LUPIN, 1932).

The original Lupin is referenced explicitly in one Lupin III film, DRAGON OF DOOM (1994), where it’s revealed that he was a passenger on the Titanic and had tried to steal the sought-after dragon figurine that Lupin the 3rd is seeking. Presumably, the original Lupin survived the sinking.

The use of the Lupin name in the original anime productions was never cleared with the Maurice Leblanc estate, which at some point complained to the Japanese producers, who worked out an arrangement. However, when Lupin III titles were licensed to U.S. distributors, the rights to use the name could not be granted, which is why some early releases cut the name Lupin out of the title, replacing it with “The Wolf” (Streamline Pictures) or “Rupan III” (AnimEigo), in the latter case at the request of Toho Pictures. (“Lupin” is the French word for wolf.”) Later Lupin releases in the U.S., including the second TV series and many of the movies and TV specials, use the Lupin name quite freely. Also, a recent animated TV series, Lupin the 3rd Part 4, ran on the Cartoon Network in 2017.

My first exposure to the Lupin III franchise was when I went (with my then-nine-year-old daughter) to see THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO (1979), the second Lupin feature film, which finds Lupin in the Duchy of Cagliostro, seeking to bring down a Count who runs Europe’s biggest counterfeiting operation and rescue a princess-in-distress. It was the first anime feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who went on to direct some of the greatest Japanese animated films ever made. (Miyazaki had also directed episodes of the Lupin III TV series.) I would soon acquire many more Lupin III movies and TV episodes on VHS tape and, later, DVD.

Most of the Lupin III anime adaptations I’ve seen had a distinctly farcical tone in the style of comic caper adventures from Hollywood and Europe, but with more exaggerated action, cartoonish slapstick and some heavy-duty globe-trotting. However, the first TV series (1971-72) is darker and more serious and plays more like a crime series than a comedy. This reflects Monkey Punch’s manga, which is comical, but also much sexier, raunchier and more violent than later anime adaptations.

For the record, Lupin’s sidekicks in the series are: Fujiko Mine, his gorgeous, buxom and frequently duplicitous partner; Daisuke Jigen, his fedora-wearing, gun-toting marksman buddy; Goemon Ishikawa, a traditional sword master and descendant of the legendary outlaw of the same name from the Warring States period of Japan; and the gang’s ever-persistent nemesis, Inspector Zenigata, of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and, later, Interpol.

I’ve enjoyed many of the animated adaptations of Lupin III and am offering notes on three Lupin features taken from reviews I did for IMDB and Amazon:

RUPAN III: THE FUMA CONSPIRACY (1987)

This Lupin III anime feature was originally designed to go straight-to-video, but was good enough to first get a theatrical release in Japan. It’s one of the more impressive entries in the entire long-running series of movies and specials about madcap master thief Lupin III and his eccentric entourage. It’s one of the few set entirely in Japan, in the hometown area of Lupin’s swordsman sidekick, Goemon, a mountain region vividly illustrated with bright autumn colors and beautiful natural landscapes. With the energy saved by keeping the characters in one locale, the animators devote the proper attention to a series of spectacular action scenes involving a mad race for hidden treasure.

LUPIN III: FAREWELL TO NOSTRADAMUS! (1995)

Easily one of the best of over a dozen feature-length Lupin III animated features and TV specials made between 1979 and 2000, FAREWELL TO NOSTRADAMUS showcases all of the Lupin series’ regular characters to great effect, but also unleashes a formidable stable of new villains and some interesting supporting characters, including Julia, the fearless, precocious child who’s heir to one of the world’s largest fortunes, and Douglas, her blindly ambitious father whose U.S. presidential campaign is derailed by her kidnapping. Several different parties are after an original, complete copy of Nostradamus’ predictions that Douglas keeps in a vault in his skyscraper. One of these parties is the cult leader of the Church of Nostradamus, who needs the book to bolster his own power. The big action climax occurs in the giant Douglas skyscraper as all parties converge in a race against time to get the book before the bombs planted by one of the competing factions go off. There’s quite a lot of genuine suspense and destructive spectacle in this section of the film. Lupin and Fujiko maintain their sense of humor throughout the film and even get romantic during one unusual interlude (with the appropriate—and expected–clothes-shedding).

ISLAND OF ASSASSINS (1997)

This 90-minute TV special from 1997 is much more of an action thriller than a typical Lupin comic caper and boasts an elaborate island setting–the home of the Tarantula assassin syndicate, whose gold stash is targeted by Lupin and his crew. It’s as fast-paced and action-packed as any Lupin III film, but is far more violent than normal for the series. There is lots of shooting, bloodshed, and killing, including deaths of the innocent. There is no sexual innuendo in this one and the comely Fujiko keeps her clothes on for once. A very nice jazz score makes good use of the standard Lupin theme. Fans of hardcore anime action who’ve steered clear of Lupin III because of the comedy may find this entry a suitable means of introduction to one of Japan’s most popular animated series.

Kazuo Koike: Lone Wolf and Cub, Crying Freeman, Lady Snowblood

My first exposure to the work of Kazuo Koike was on March 10, 1974, when I went to a neighborhood theater to see LIGHTNING SWORDS OF DEATH, an English-dubbed version of BABY CART TO HADES (1972), the third film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series of six films produced by Toho Pictures from 1972 to 1974, all based on the manga by Koike and Goseki Kojima.

The series starred Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto, the former Shogunate Executioner, who was framed and disgraced and is now an exile wandering the Japanese countryside with his young son in a wooden baby cart (tricked up with numerous weapons, including a crude form of machine gun) looking for work as a sword for hire.

Later that same year, I saw the first film in the series, SWORD OF VENGEANCE (1972), in Japanese with English subtitles, at a Japanese film festival in Manhattan. In 1980, New World Pictures released an English-dubbed film called SHOGUN ASSASSIN that edited together parts of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films into one 85-minute English-dubbed feature. This turned out to be quite popular in the U.S. and influenced the future members of the rap group, the Wu Tang Clan, and attracted many fans to Japanese samurai films. It includes the famous scene from SWORD OF VENGEANCE in which Ogami makes his baby son choose his fate–life with father or death to join his mother–by placing a sword and a ball in front of him to see which he crawls to.

Eventually, I would see all the Lone Wolf and Cub films in various formats and read the entire manga series on which the films were based after the series was published in 28 digest-sized paperback volumes by Dark Horse Comics from 2000-2002.

I also have several DVD volumes of the “Lone Wolf and Cub” TV series from 1973 that starred Kinnosuke Nakamura in the role.

I first saw the animated “Crying Freeman #1: Portrait of a Killer” on an unsubtitled Japanese-language VHS tape in 1992. It’s a very stylized, deeply romantic story, with large doses of bloody violence, graphic sex and female nudity, of a Japanese hitman working for a Chinese syndicate. He targets a Japanese woman who witnessed one of his hits in Hong Kong, but instead falls in love with her and marries her. I eventually acquired the entire six-part anime series when ADV Films released it on DVD in 2003.

The Crying Freeman manga series was first released (by Viz) in 1995 and it was one of the earliest manga series I acquired, predating even “Lone Wolf and Cub.” Eventually, I would see feature films from Hong Kong and Canada based on “Crying Freeman.”

“Lady Snowblood” is a manga series Koike wrote in 1972-73 about a female assassin out for revenge against the high officials who killed her mother’s husband and caused her mother’s death in prison, where Yuki, Lady Snowblood, was born, the result of a liaison between her mother and a prison guard, all so that the baby, entrusted to a departing inmate, can be raised to avenge the dead couple. It was turned into two live-action films, LADY SNOWBLOOD (1973) and LOVE SONG OF VENGEANCE (1974), both starring Meiko Kaji (star of the FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION and STRAY CAT ROCK action series). Four volumes of the manga were eventually published in English.

The two films were released together by the Criterion Collection as a box set in 2016.

The first film uses illustrations from the manga to show how a Meiji-era newspaper account by a small-time publisher (Toshio Kurosawa) covered her story.

Quentin Tarantino used two songs from the LADY SNOWBLOOD films, both sung by their star, Meiko Kaji, on the soundtrack of KILL BILL, VOL. 1 (2003).

A Hong Kong remake of LADY SNOWBLOOD, titled BROKEN OATH (1977), starred Angela Mao.

The Criterion Collection’s release of all six Lone Wolf and Cub films on Blu-ray includes, as an extra, a 12-minute interview with Koike, done in 2015. He’s got high praise for director Kenji Misumi, star Tomisaburo Wakayama, and the artist of the manga, Goseki Kojima, and had good working relationships with all of them. (Wakayama used to call him up at all hours to share ideas for fight choreography). He also says he participated in a fast-draw sword contest with Wakayama and Wakayama’s brother, Shintaro Katsu (star of the Zatoichi films), and insists that he, Koike, won.

There is another interview with Koike on Criterion’s LADY SNOWBLOOD disc. He discusses how he devised the character and her elaborate backstory and delves into Japanese history and a little of his own background.

And here are the obituaries for Kazuo Koike and Kazuhiko Kato.

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