Arsène Lupin in our midst! the irresponsible burglar whose exploits had been narrated in all the newspapers during the past few months! the mysterious individual with whom Ganimard, our shrewdest detective, had been engaged in an implacable conflict amidst interesting and picturesque surroundings. Arsène Lupin, the eccentric gentleman who operates only in the chateaux and salons, and who, one night, entered the residence of Baron Schormann, but emerged empty-handed, leaving, however, his card on which he had scribbled these words: "Arsène Lupin, gentleman-burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine."
"The Arrest of Arsène Lupin"
Today, something completely different! Not a review, but a little look into the Japanese history of a very French character.
Arsène Lupin, the gentleman-thief created by Maurice Leblanc in 1905, is not very remarkable in modern Western popular culture, Lupin still lives on in Japan in a curious way. Is he as well known as someone as Sherlock Holmes? That, I very, very much doubt, but the fact you can still stroll into a bookstore and find translated versions of tales of the gentleman-thief should say something. The question that might pop up in your head is: why? Forgotten is too strong a word, but Lupin is definitely not that big a household name anymore in the West, and while getting his books through the Powers of the Internet isn't that difficult, I doubt many stores in the neighborhood stock his adventures. Is there a secret behind his staying power in Japan?
Some might say that Japanese culture, or more precisely, Japanese mystery fandom, tends to focus more on the Western classics more than we do here. I think that would be a too easy, and a too careless attempt at an explanation, and one that seems to ignore the fact that Leblanc actually did write incredibly entertaining stories. Perhaps the question should be why he isn't still that famous here, rather than the other way around.
The notion of the gentleman-thief did not start with Arsène Lupin, of course. A direct literary forefather is E.W. Hornung's Raffles series, which started in 1898, and we have early examples in folklore like Robin Hood. In Japan too, there had been a tradition of folklore about thieves that were seen as heroes by the masses. There is for example Ishikawa Goemon (1558-1584), an outlaw who stole to give to the poor. His exploits became the subject of many kinds of folklore, including multiple kabuki plays. Another example would be Nezumi Kozou ("The Rat Kid"). Nezumi Kozou was the nickname of Nakamura Jiroukichi (1797-1831), a thief who managed to burgle over 100 samurai estates. His tale turned into folklore, and has been the subject of folk songs and kabuki plays (including one by Kawatake Mokuami, seen by some as one of the greatest kabuki dramatists). These characters are considered gizoku, or "thieves with honor" and are thus early examples of thieves that are considered the heroes of a tale in fiction (even if based on real persons and events).
(See: Hasebe Fumichika (2007). Oubei Suiri Shousetsu Honyakushi. Futaba Bunko. p159-161)
The character of Arsène Lupin was also noticed by Edogawa Rampo, who is commonly seen as the father of the modern Japanese mystery story. It's easy to see the influence of the thief in Rampo's work. Not only did he have his own detective character, Akechi Kogorou, take on the famous French thief in his 1930-1931 novel Ougon Kamen ("The Golden Mask"): his famous creation Kaijin Nijuu Mensou (the Fiend with Twenty Faces) was also partly inspired by the thief. The Fiend would become the main antagonist in the highly succesful children's mystery series Shounen Tantei Dan (The Boy Detectives Club, started in 1936), so the notion of the flamboyant thief with a fantastic skill for disguises had been implanted in many. And more importantly perhaps, this notion was implanted in children, meaning a new generation would grow up with knowledge of this notion. The Shounen Tantei Dan series is still source of many pop-culture references nowadays,
The biggest influence on Lupin's staying power however is perhaps Minami Youichirou (1893-1980), a novelist and translator who'd be responsible for "The Complete Gentleman-Thief Lupin" series, which was a complete translated release of the complete Arsène Lupin series by publisher Poplar. Minami had been a teacher on an elementary school, but having found succes with writing adventure novels for children, he became a professional novelist. His first translation of the Lupin series was published in 1958, and it would take him over 20 years, until the year he died, to complete the project (though this project also included some non-Leblanc Lupin novels). What should be noted was that Minami did not make faithful translations. The Minami translation is aimed at children, so a lot of the stories were simplified, and plotpoints like adultery/divorce and such were skipped over. Some books were shortened to provide for a more streamlined experience. The result is a slightly more heroic, and perhaps 'cleaner' version of Lupin, but, thanks to Minami's own experience as a novelist of children's adventure novels, this version was also very readable, and as such incredibly well-loved by the readers. I too have read some of his translation, and they were quite fun as easier-to-read, and more focused stories.
Other publishers have also released faithful translations of the Lupin novels, but if you look on Amazon now, you'll notice that they're all out of print. Only the Minami Youichirou translations remain in print, even now, so many years after the series first started and even after 'better' translations were released. It shows how beloved his version of the stories are. And because his books are aimed at children, new generations keep growing up with his versions. Interestingly enough, even generations that have now grown up don't seem to have a particular need for the faithful translations! Also note that the Minami translations are instantly recognizable by their awesome retro covers!
Some people might also want to mention the famous franchise Lupin The Third as a reason as to why Arsène Lupin's still available in Japan. Lupin The Third, first started in 1967, is one of the biggest manga/anime franchises in the history, with multiple comic book series, TV series, even more TV specials and films and everything. Heck, an (EXCELLENT) TV series of it has ended just now in Japan, in 2016! And yes, Lupin The Third is about Lupin III, grandson of Arsène, who's also a genius thief, so that is a link, but I think a lot of people overestimate this link. Lupin The Third borrows very little from his grandfather besides some names and the (very) occassional reference. So I wouldn't equate Lupin the Third's success with Arsène Lupin's reputation in Japan per se, even if it definitely helps to have the same name! Do note that Lupin The Third is way, way, waaaaay better known that his grandfather. There is a different recent manga based on Arsène Lupin by the way, titled Aventurier (2011-now), based on the books.
Anyway, I don't pretend to know exactly why Arsène Lupin still prevails in Japan. Then again: is there anybody who can accurately read the movements of that thief? If Ganimard can't, how can I? What I do know is that I absolutely love the character and I'm happy to see that he's still alive in Japan, in one form or another. Because what would Lupin be without a disguise?