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Lupin III: Dead or Alive Anime Review

Lupin III:  Dead or Alive Box Art

Lupin the 3rd: Dead or Alive

4.5 stars / Movie / Action / 13 and up

Bottom Line

One of the most creative and stylish films in the Lupin franchise--stands out from the pack in a big way.

It’s Like...

...Every other island-looting, freedom-fighting Lupin heist, with more nanotech and budget.

Vital Stats

Original Title


Romanized Title

Rupan Sansei: Dead or Alive

Animation Studio

Tokyo Movie Shinsha

US Release By



Caper Action/Adventure

Series Type



100 minutes

Production Date


What's In It


Look For

  • Knife-wielding Dictators
  • Nanotech Fortresses
  • Dashing Rebels

Objectionable Content

  • Violence: 2 (moderate)
  • Nudity: 1 (mild)
  • Sex: 0 (none)
  • Language: 0 (none)

full details

Plot Synopsis

In their latest adventure, international thief Lupin and his companions, the Samurai Goemon and sharpshooter Jigen, are after the treasure of Zufu, a fortune in government valuables hidden by the Zufu king before being deposed and executed along with his son in a palace coup. Finding the structure known as "the floating island" containing the treasure turns out to be surprisingly easy, leaving the gang wondering why General Headhunter, leader of the coup and current dictator of the nation, never took it for himself. But soon the answer is clear: The treasure is guarded by the most advanced security system Lupin has ever encountered, an amazing form of nano-technology that causes the entire structure to become a weapon, literally coming alive to repel invaders. The system swiftly repulses Lupin and his crew, sending them fleeing back to Zufu's capitol to come up with a new strategy.

Meanwhile, Lupin's rival, Inspector Zenigata, has arrived in Zufu to track him down with the help of General Headhunter and his army. Worse (for Lupin), Headhunter would rather kill him than go through the effort of making an arrest. Also, Lupin's sometimes partner in crime and romantic adventures Fujiko has infiltrated Headhunter's castle by going undercover, hoping to discover the secret of evading the treasure's security system to take it for herself. And to top in all off, the deposed heir to the Zufu throne, Prince Pannish, has been sighted in the city, seemingly back from the dead to raise a resistance army against Headhunter.

Somehow, Lupin and his companions must come up with a way to get past the security system on the floating island and take the treasure while evading Headhunter's soldiers and bounty hunters, who have been tasked with taking Lupin out of the picture by any means necessary, dead or alive.

Quick Review

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Don't be fooled by the generic title and the fact that it's yet another Lupin III film about an island full of treasure in a land ruled by a ruthless dictator; Dead or Alive is one of the most original and creative films in the franchise, and one of the best. The things that make a quality Lupin film are all there--original concepts, epic story appeal, grand adventure, and great action scenes, in this case enhanced by beautifully-drawn settings and top-quality animation. Of particular note here is the heist--finding the treasure isn't the hard part, but defeating one of the most creative security systems ever conceived on animated film is: A nanotech trap that literally turns the entire Island into a living weapon. Like something right out of a classic horror/adventure film, the island is nearly a co-star. Even the treatment of the secondary characters is above average, with a relatively competent Zenigata and Jigen, Goemon, and Fujiko all involved throughout. The closest thing to a weak point is the generic villains, and maybe that the island doesn't get more screen time, but those are just nitpicks.

Overall, Dead or Alive is one of the most pleasant surprises I've ever experienced watching anime--a total masterpiece of anime in nearly every aspect. From start to finish, Dead or Alive is a brilliant epic adventure that should thrill Lupin fans, as well as anime fans in general who have even a passing interest in the genre.

Read the full-length review...

Full Review

Switch to Quick Review

Strap yourselves in, everyone. It's yet another Lupin adventure where Lupin and his crew go to yet another nation in turmoil, ruled by yet another dictator, in search of yet another treasure, on yet another hazardous island. Or at least that's what it seems at first glance. Although I'm a pretty big fan of the Lupin series, I gotta say I wasn't expecting much from this film. Just look at the title: "Dead or Alive." Really? That's the best they could come up with? Apart from it being totally interchangeable and used in many other films (not to mention a Bon Jovi song), it just seems way too simple and doesn't tell us anything at all about what we are going to see. And really, do we need another island full of treasure in a land ruled by another ruthless dictator? At this point I'm starting to wonder how often islands are used for anything else.

But, to my surprise and delight, it turns out all of my concerns were totally unfounded. In fact, this is one of the most original and creative films in the franchise, and, more importantly, it's one of the best. The title and description on the DVD box don't do it any justice, but that's okay since once you start watching, it's clear you are in for one hell of an adventure. Dead or Alive is an excellent movie, one of the rare gems of the series with enough original concepts, epic story appeal, grand adventure, and great action scenes to make it stand far above the pack.

One of the most notable aspects is the fact that the main theme of the movie isn't Lupin's hunt for the treasure. On the contrary, he finds where it is roughly ten minutes into the movie, right after the opening credits are through. Instead of having him hunt down the metaphorical treasure chest, the central plot is about his attempt to pick the lock, or, rather, defeat one of the most creative security systems ever conceived on animated film: A horrific form of bio-mechanical nano-technology that literally turns the entire island, which is actually the ruins of an old aircraft carrier grounded in the shallows, into a weapon against invaders. Watching weapons fly out of walls, floors, ceilings, and just about every other place onboard the ship is truly an amazing sight, and puts Lupin and his crew up against one of the toughest and most creative environments they have ever faced. Right from the start when they first encounter the security system, it really creates a great sense of mystery and terror and leaves you wondering how on earth they will ever find a way to get past it, setting up the rest of film perfectly from there.

The "Floating Island" is an amazing environment itself, even before the security system is activated. Essentially a ghost ship filled with state of the art technology, as well as wrecked vehicles and corpses of soldiers who had previously attempted to gain access, it's something right out of a classic horror/adventure film, and fans of both genres should feel right at home watching the Lupin crew attempt to travel through it. I'd go so far as to call the island a "co-star" in the film, and it's certainly a lot more creative than any other treasure-filled island I've seen in the franchise so far.

However, most of the film takes place in the Zufu capital, a place where Lupin and his crew try to come up with a plan to beat the security on the island while Fujiko tries to find the key by infiltrating Headhunter's castle, Zenigata is hot on Lupin's trail, and Headhunter has dispatched his men to take Lupin out of the picture, permanently. As if that wasn't enough, we also have the supposedly dead prince of Zufu trying to raise a resistance army with the help of a government agent named Ole, who is torn between her duty to defeat Lupin and her loyalties to the old monarchy, as well as her love affair with Prince Pannish. All these different issues and conflicting agendas create an excellent atmosphere of intrigue and adventure, much as they did in another great Lupin film, "Secret of Twilight Gemini," which interestingly enough was released in the same year (1996).

I was also really impressed with the supporting cast. Jigen and Goemon don't really have anything to do except help Lupin out, but they do a pretty good job of it and it's nice to see them along for the whole ride instead of just showing up when he needs them. Fujiko also has one of her best performances I've seen in the series so far. Tasked with finding information on the floating island by infiltrating Headhunter's castle, to call her assignment dangerous and vital is an understatement. Yet she performs her task superbly, without being forced to seduce anyone or getting her clothes shredded, as we've seen so many times in other films. And, as if that wasn't enough, Zenigata actually has a pretty strong part in the show too. His only role is trying to arrest Lupin, and I would have liked to see him involved in the larger overall plot (as he did in Twilight Gemini), but at least he displays a fair amount of skill, and his arrest attempts are depicted as being at least semi-competent. Considering how he's treated in most Lupin movies, I guess that should be enough to keep me satisfied.

At the time of writing this review, Dead or Alive is one of only five Lupin movies that were originally released in theaters. Perhaps due to this, it seems it had a very high budget and some stellar animation, well beyond what I'm used to seeing in most other Lupin films, most of which are TV specials or direct-to-video releases. The animation, background art and environments all look superb, and the quality is apparent right from the start, with a great car chase and well-animated prison, followed by some brilliant scenic shots of a desolate land as Lupin's crew travel to the floating island. From there it just keeps getting better. Both the exterior and interior settings of the ruined carrier are masterpieces of animation, and the transition to living mode when the security system is activated only makes it better. All of the other environments, from the Lupin gang's mountain hideout to Headhunter's palace, are drawn beautifully and with utmost attention to detail. Also done exceptionally well are the weapons, from Headhunter's massive assortment of swords and knives to Jigen's revolver, Zenigata's M1911, Goemon's sword, Fujiko's pocket pistol, and, of course, Lupin's classic Walther P-38, which is perfectly animated to look almost identical to the real life version in every way and function. I swear I need to be careful when watching this movie, because if I see it too many times, it will compel me to go buy a Walther P-38 of my own. It just makes it seem that darn good.

The actions scenes are just what you would expect from a Lupin movie; occasionally over the top, but still loads of fun. Like most great Lupin films, it has at least one excellent car chase scene, along with plenty of assorted shootouts, fistfights, and sword-fights. The actions of the characters are sometimes preposterous, but they don't go too far and I never got the sense that the good guys were flat-out cheating. The action scenes are still intense and competitive, and the sense of danger isn't removed or minimized.

If there is anything to complain about in this movie it's definitely the villains, General Headhunter and his police chief Crisis. Once again I have to ask, is this really the best they could come up with? General Headhunter? Why not just call him "General Not Nice Person" or "General Evil Guy"? And "Crisis"? I can't even think of anything to compare that too because it's so lame. It doesn't even sound scary or intimidating. It's just stupid. And while most of the other aspects of the film end up being far more interesting and original than their titles make them seem, these guys, sadly, do not. They are every bit as cliched and shallow as their names imply. At least Headhunter is appropriately menacing and a fairly competent warrior, so he's not a total loss. But on the other hand, he's easily manipulated by Lupin's tricks and not nearly as savvy or clever as one would expect from a ruler who just finished leading a decisively successful rebellion.

Another issue I have is that we don't get that much time on the floating island. Story-wise it makes sense; obviously Lupin would want to stay away from the place until he could find a surefire way to beat the security system, and obviously finding that way is a daunting task that would take a lot of time. But, seeing as the floating island was by far the best and most creative environment in the film, I would have liked see a bit more of it. Not too big of a deal, but something worth mentioning.

Overall, Dead or Alive is one of the most pleasant surprises I've ever experienced watching anime. Beyond the simple title and overused concept of a treasure-filled island, it is a total masterpiece of anime in nearly every aspect. It's a shame the film doesn't have better villains or more scenes in the floating island, but those are just minor nitpicks. From start to finish, Dead or Alive is a brilliant epic adventure that should thrill Lupin fans, as well as anime fans in general who have even a passing interest in the genre.

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Related Recommendations

In the same general vein as pretty much every other Lupin III movie, although in this case the treasure and traps are a lot more modern and sci-fi based than the norm. Compared to the Lupin average, the mood on the serious side and there's very little romance or sex. The most similar outing is probably The Secret of Twilight Gemini, mostly on account of the freedom-fighter female lead.

Notes and Trivia

Currently the most recent of only five Lupin films that got an original theatrical release. Also, this movie is notable for being the only film ever directed by Kazuhiko Katou (better known by his pen name, Monkey Punch), who originally created the Lupin comics that started the franchise. But, despite being credited as the sole director, he later said he found the process too difficult, and ended up only directing a few scenes at the beginning and end, passing off most of the work to his assistant. He also stated he has no desire to direct another Lupin film again.

Random anime reference: In a scene where a wall of TVs is showing the prince's speech, one of the TVs on the left edge of the frame is apparently showing one of the anime adaptations of the long-running Cobra franchise--not nearly as well-known as Lupin, but it's been around almost as long and is still going strong.

US DVD Review

Like most Lupin DVDs, this one contains trailers and bios of the characters. But this one also has a 2003 interview with Kazuhiko Katou, the orignal creator of the Lupin comics. In it he explains how he came up with the series, his inspiration for making each individual main character, and his involvement in the Dead or Alive film.

The DVD was originally released as a standalone volume, then packaged with four other Lupin films in Funimation's First Haul movie box set.

Parental Guide

One of the cleaner Lupin III films. Other than the deaths and violence, there really isn't anything to be concerned with.

Violence: 2 - A few bloody deaths.

Nudity: 1 - Fujiko has a skimpy outfit, but only for one brief scene near the beginning of the movie.

Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Nothing.

Language: 0 - Zip.


Available in North America from Funimation on bilingual DVD, originally by itself and then as part of the First Haul movie set along with Voyage to Danger, Dragon of Doom, The Pursuit of Harimao's Treasure, and The Secret of Twilight Gemini. Both are out of print as of this writing.

Amazon had the solo version in stock at last check (plus dirt-cheap used listings), while the box set version is only listed through third parties used, and quite expensively at that: Lupin The 3rd - Dead Or Alive, Lupin the 3rd Movie Pack: First Haul.

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