Thieves in Manga
May 12, 2012
Japan loves heroic thieves. This is one of the few cases I prefer the Japanese term, “kaitou,” as the English term “phantom thief” is a bit of a misnomer. I’m not actually certain what the genre encompasses in Japan, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to go ahead and use the term “kaitou” to refer to any thief portrayed heroically.
Lupin III is the earliest example I’ve seen of this character type, and Lupin III is, interestingly, massively western-influenced. Monkey Punch’s style is informed heavily by the work of Sergio Aragones, a Spanish artist who gained popularity in the pages of Mad Magazine. The character of Lupin, however, is the grandson of the French thief Arsene Lupin, from the pages of a French novel series by Maurice Leblanc. The western roots are a little strange in this case because this type of character seems to come up a lot in manga, and nowhere else that I’ve read. There are examples, of course (Robin Hood, or maybe Han Solo at a stretch) but it seems like Japan loves this character a whole lot more than the rest of the world.
The kaitou is interesting to me as an example of a heroic villain, or maybe rooting for the underdog. In the case of Lupin, he’s not terribly heroic. He acts on whims, does as he pleases, and is constantly jumping in bed with women. He outwits police and criminals alike. He’s charming and goofy, which is why he’s fun to read about, but the key is that he’s not greedy. That’s true of all these characters. They aren’t actually thieves who steal for profit. And that’s the catch in manga, where a shoujo or shounen heroine would never be allowed to steal if it was actually for nefarious intent. Lupin is different than the others, but you’ll notice that many of the kaitou I list below only steal things if they are haunted or demonically possessed.
In particular though, I’m fond of the “gentlemen thief” archetype. I’ve listed all the kaitou I could think of here, but really, my heart belongs to the flashy gentlemen like Noir from Gorgeous Carat and Eroica in From Eroica With Love. And Lupin, in his way. There’s a bit more trickery in those types of stories, so they tend to lend themselves well to both good action and excellent humor. Plus, with an emphasis on the “gentlemen,” those usually have a touch of romance to them without actually being a love story. Except for Lupin III, which is totally about sweeping women off their feet.
Man of Many Faces – CLAMP (2 volumes) – This is a strange, strange series. It exists as a tie-in to the CLAMP Campus series of books (which includes CLAMP School Detectives, a romantic comedy, and Duklyon: CLAMP School Defenders, a superhero series). The main character is 4th grader Akira Ijyuin. Upstanding sweet-as-pie student council member by day, kaitou by night, Akira is the titular Man of Many Faces. In this case, he steals because he has two mothers that tell him to. That a 4th grader is stealing artifacts, and has two mothers, is only the beginning of the messy insanity that is Man of Many Faces. It’s more of a romantic comedy than anything, though, and follows his budding relationship with kindergartner Utako Okawa, former thieving victim-turned-beau. See what I mean? The Japanese title is Nijuu Mensou ni Onegai!, or Please, 20 Faces!, which is a reference to the Edogawa Rampo character Kaijin Nijuu Mensou, or the Fiend of 20 Faces. He’s sort of like the Japanese equivalent to Professor Moriarty, and serves as a villain to the popular early 20th Century detective Kogoro Akechi.
Overall, it’s not a terribly great series, but it is an interesting example of a kaitou for a very young audience.
Gorgeous Carat – You Higuri (8+ volumes) – A gentlemen thief series set in late 19th century Paris. It’s mostly an action series with a hint of romance, and follows the exploits of expert jewel thief Noir and his… ward, Florian. Florian “helps” Noir, theoretically to pay back a debt Noir covered for his family, but for the purposes of the story, the two are more-or-less lovers. But it’s not really about that. Gorgeous Carat is one of my very favorite shoujo action series, and You Higuri has a knack for writing epic stories that span several very scenic locations. And she can draw. I’ve compared it to Indiana Jones before, and that’s still very accurate (at least for the first 4-volume series, anyway).
Noir’s role as a jewel thief only comes up occasionally, since most of the plot entanglements have to do with Noir’s background and the criminals he associates with. But his skills with a whip come in handy, and when he is in full-blown Noir mode, he’s the most gentlemanly of gentlemen thieves, with tuxedo, top hat, billowing cape, jeweled accessories, and just about anything you could ask for.
D.N.Angel – Yukiru Sugisaki (13+ volumes) – A strange premise, DNAngel is the story of a family haunted by the spirit of a thief named Dark. In every other generation, someone is forced to share the body of Dark, and in the present, the victim is Daisuke Niwa. The sharing involves a physical transformation into Dark when thieving, or, strangely, when he’s around the girl he likes. The thieving, in this case, is art objects and cultural artifacts. What seems like a strange supernatural pleasure jaunt at first is slowly revealed to have purpose: the artifacts are all things that have been enchanted by Dark’s rival, Krad. Not only is Krad Dark spelled backwards, he has also survived the years and has a similar arrangement, but by sheer coincidence, Krad shares the body of a classmate of Daisuke’s. And, for some reason, he’s the commander of the police! Such a predicament!
The thieving is again secondary to romantic hijinx and drama, but being a kaitou is what Dark does, and there’s plenty of late night adventures that go elsewhere in D.N.Angel. The thieving is very action-packed, and it’s often the journey or the destination rather than the act of stealing or the item itself. Having said that, D.N.Angel is only okay-bordering-on-confusing, and is incomplete in English. Allegedly, the ending is also rather disappointing.
From Eroica With Love – Yasuko Aoike (15+ volumes) – I would never miss an opportunity to mention this series! From Eroica With Love is the story of the international art thief Eroica and his many adventures crossing paths with NATO spy Major Eberbach. It’s an action/comedy series, with the flamboyant Earl needling the uptight and easily excitable Major Eberbach as frequently as he can. The setting changes every time, and stories have taken place in England, Alaska, Italy, Germany, Egypt, and a number of other locations. It’s a classic series, and one of my favorites.
Interestingly, both of the main characters are thieves in their way. Eroica’s goals are merely aesthetic, and his targets are always art and art objects that he wishes to keep for art’s sake, rather than for any sort of monetary gain (he has a gang early on that likes to ransom the stolen pieces, though that is quickly ditched in favor of tracking down the Earl’s favorites with two henchmen). The Major’s foes are usually communists, as the parts of Eroica that I’ve read is set during the Cold War. He is often out to steal something as well, though in his case he’s stealing something for the sake of international security. Still, he is a thief. The stories are usually structured in a way that lets us see that the Earl wants something, and it happens to be in the same place that the Major is assigned to, and they just happen to bump into each other and help/hinder one another. It’s highly enjoyable for its plot structure alone, but it’s also quite funny. One of my top three favorite manga series. Plus, there’s no thief more gentlemanly than Eroica.
Lupin III – Monkey Punch (14 volumes) – I’ve already talked a lot about Lupin in the opening. Grandson of French thief Arsene Lupin, Lupin III travels around with his crony Jigen doing whatever criminal thievery suits his fancy. He has a habit of dodging bumbling detective Zenigata and winding up enjoying the company of only the finest women at various points in the series. It’s mostly an adventure/comedy, with a lot of slapstick and bawdy humor. It’s also a true classic, and still very funny, naughty, and action-packed nearly 50 years after it was first written.
Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne – Arina Tanemura (7 volumes) – I’ve talked about this series recently, but it’s worth mentioning again in this context. This takes the magical girl genre but, instead of turning into a heroine, turns the main character into a thief. Tiny angel Finn Fish gives regular schoolgirl Kusakabe Maron special powers that transform her into Kaitou Jeanne. Kaitou Jeanne’s divine mission is to steal various works of art that have been demonically possessed and are wreaking havoc with the general populace. She has a rival kaitou that allegedly works for the other side who is also a love interest.
Things get much more interesting as the series progresses and the true extent of Kaitou Jeanne’s mission is revealed, but in structure and theme it is a lot like D.N.Angel. She steals art that isn’t really art, she has an alter ego, and her mission is for the greater good. But in the case of Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne, the plot really is about Jeanne’s missions, though her relationship with Kaitou Sinbad and other characters also figures prominently as well.
Shadow Lady – Masakazu Katsura (3 volumes) – I’m just gonna… go ahead and slip this in here. Shadow Lady isn’t so much a kaitou as she is a cat burglar, more selfish than even Lupin III. It’s a series that goes about as far over the top as Katsura’s ridiculously good skills at drawing T&A can take it. Meek Aimi applies special eyeshadow to turn into boisterous, thieving Shadow Lady, born from the power of demons. Different colors of eye shadow make Shadow Lady appear in skimpier outfits with different power-ups, like a catsuit for jumping, et cetera.
Shadow Lady’s thieving skills… they’re mostly an excuse for her to trip the burglar alarms and bring down the wrath of the police force on herself, so she can jump around and rile them up with her considerable… assets, then escape flamboyantly. Later, she has to steal demon artifacts to save the world, but she still does it as flamboyantly as possible. She is the main character, and the story ends with her as the hero, but she’s very Lupin-like in her capers in that they’re for selfish reasons, but not personal gain. I liked it, though honestly, I think few others will.
Wild Act – Rie Takada (10 volumes) – This is another really bizarre shoujo series. The thief this time is Yuniko, a teenage girl who is completely obsessed with a certain actor who died before she was born. So obsessed, in fact, that she steals every item of obscure memorabilia that she hears about in the media. Anything that touched the life of this actor, Yuniko will go out of her way to steal it using rather skillful and elaborate means. She’s a very strong and quite interesting heroine, too, so when she’s not capering through the night, she’s still entertaining in her regular life as well. Her thieving causes her to cross paths with Ryu, a popular teenage actor of the present, and the two quickly fall for one another. The rest of the series is about thieving, Ryu’s career, and Yuniko’s increasingly bizarre family situation, which goes from orphan to WTF by the end of the series.
This is mostly a shoujo romance, but memorabilia thieving is so much a part of who Yuniko is that it really wouldn’t be the same without it. And the capers are some of the most elaborate on this list. Her accomplices are frequently a pair of flying squirrels that help her break, enter, and escape undetected. They don’t talk or anything, they are merely trained. One gets so excited she pees a lot. Make of that what you will.
Case Closed – Gosho Aoyama (65+ volumes) – The rest of the series on this list are only marginally related. Case Closed is mostly the story of teenage super-sleuth Jimmy Kudo and his adventures in detective work after being transformed back into a first grader. He has a variety of gadgets to help him get work done, since being six years old doesn’t lend itself to being taken seriously about anything. Plus he’s got a whole criminal super-organization after him, so he decides to lay low and pretend to be a ward of his girlfriend’s family. That’s the plot, but the majority of the many, many volumes are filled with short one-off cases where a simple crime happens and Jimmy has to solve it as Conan, his 6-year-old self.
This ties into the article because one of the semi-recurring villains in this series is the Kaitou Kid, a phantom thief who is one of the few that escapes Conan’s justice. He’s not evil, but he’s definitely a lawbreaker, and the two have a sort of antagonistic relationship. The Kaitou Kid is actually the main character in another of Aoyama’s works, called Magic Kaitou. He looks like Jimmy, so this is used to his advantage. Apparently he appears in the Detective Conan movies more frequently than he does the manga, as I’m having a hard time tracking down a Kaitou Kid storyline at the moment. His appearance, every inch the gentlemen thief with mask, top hat, tux, and cape, is inspired by Arsene Lupin. His knack for disguises also suggests an influence from the Fiend of Many Faces, but I can’t say for sure.
Sailor Moon – Naoko Takeuchi (18 volumes) – So, in this series, planet-themed teenage female guardians save the world again and again with magic powers. If you found this website, and read this far, you probably know the plot to Sailor Moon. If not, you’re missing out on one of the cornerstones of English-language otaku culture, and you should check it out. I’m not the biggest fan, but I can acknowledge its influence.
The link here comes from Tuxedo Mask. He’s a head-to-toe gentlemen thief at the beginning of the series, and he fills the role quite nicely as his goal of finding the Moon Crystal lead him on a variety of jewel heist-type capers. His appearance, much like the Kaitou Kid above, is also directly inspired by Arsene Lupin, I believe.
Dororo – Osamu Tezuka (3 volumes) – I may be incapable of making a list without including a work by Osamu Tezuka somewhere on it. I did say I was including any thief portrayed heroically, and Dororo is one of the main characters of this series. He’s a self-styled thief, though he does precious little stealing when he joins with Hyakkimaru and begins his travels. The series is actually a rather incredible tale of Hyakkimaru being sacrificed to demons after birth, and each one of 48 demons getting a piece of the infant. Found as a faceless ball of flesh with no senses whatsoever, but a will to live, a puppetmaker makes him a robot body and Hyakkimaru gets tough in order to slay the 48 demons and get his body parts back. Dororo is merely a young traveling companion that humanizes him. Again, he’s not really a thief throughout the course of the series, and it’s more adventure-focused than anything else. But the series is named for him, and his name is a corruption of the Japanese word for thief (dorobo), so I’ll just slide this in here at the bottom.