Lupin III - Albatross: Wings of Death (Lupin III's Greatest Capers)

Years ago, there was a VHS tape called "Lupin III's Greatest Capers," which contained two latter episodes from the Shin Lupin series (aka "Red Jacket" Lupin) that ran from 1976-1980. The videotape was released around 1990 or so, courtesy of Streamline and Orion, both now defunct, most likely intended to ride the rising wave of anime fandom in the wake of Akira.

This VHS tape is remembered for one reason - these two Lupin III episodes were directed and storyboarded by Hayao Miyazaki. That would make this VHS the first Miyazaki anime released in the United States...after that infamous debacle Warriors of the Wind. This video would be treasured by the underground anime fans who were smart enough to know who the giants were. Heck, any otaku smart enough to even know the name of Hayao Miyazaki in 1990 would be ahead of the pack.

Fortunately, Youtube has the Albatross episode, and it's damn terrific fun. Albatross: Wings of Death seems designed for the hardcore Miyazaki fan, with riffs littered all over the place. Nods to Future Boy Conan and Castle of Cagliostro (produced the previous year) are in abundance, but also note the shots that will be quoted in Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and Castle in the Sky.

Albatross is masterfully directed, brilliantly paced, whip-smart and wickedly funny. But was Miyazaki worried about his future as a director? Does the frenetic action and densely packed shots suggest a worry, a fear, that his opportunities in anime were drying up? 1979 saw the release of Castle of Cagliostro, but it was a bust at the box office, having offended the dedicated Lupin fans for deviating too sharply from the raunchy, Mad Magazine-inspired Lupin. When the second Lupin TV series was brought to Telecom, Miyazaki used a pen name for the director's credit.

In the next year, 1981, the Sherlock Hound project would be scuttled during production, with only six episodes completed and in the can. After that, Miyazaki traveled to America for another project which fell apart, the Nemo film. Embittered by the experience, he finally retreated to his first love, manga comics.

These are the dark days of Miyazaki's career, the time between Cagliostro and Nausicaa. I think we need to appreciate the works of this period in that light. His glory days of Toei Doga and Heidi were long in the past. Future Boy Conan was not a hit, neither was Cagliostro. Shin Lupin was eventually retired, and Sherlock Hound was never even born. For a film artist approaching his 40th birthday, with many of his peers beginning to migrate away from animation (Yoiche Kotabe, Reiko Okuyama, Yasuo Otsuka), these trials would produce some very interesting work.

Of course, none of this history is needed to enjoy Albatross: Wings of Death. It's a terrific comic-book adventure, rushing along from one chase scene to the next, climaxing with a thrilling airship battle. Everything rushes by so quickly that you'll need to watch again just to catch up. And it's beyond baffling that we're still waiting for these shows on DVD, two decades later. Can you believe that? It was easier to see this aspect of Miyazaki anime when Miyazaki was a complete unknown. Now he's universally recognized as God Incarnate and we're wondering what the hell happened to our episodes of Sherlock Hound and Lupin III.

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