Hayao Miyazaki has had a long and storied career, but even he had to begin somewhere, and did he ever with The Castle of Cagliostro (1979 in Japan, American release in 1991). Before this he had directed TV and shorts but not a theatrical movie. The film is an entry in the Lupin III franchise – created by Monkey Punch in 1967 (we will now enter the Wikipediaish part of the post). The series follows the adventures of Arsène Lupin III, who is the grandson of Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief of Maurice Leblanc‘s series of novels. Lupin III follows the adventures of Lupin and his trusty right-hand man Daisuke Jigen, an expert marksman who can accurately shoot a target in 0.3 seconds. They are also joined at times by Goemon Ishikawa XIII, a master swordsman whose sword can cut anything, and Fujiko Mine, a femme fatale and Lupin’s love interest. Lupin and his gang are constantly being chased by Inspector Koichi Zenigata of the ICPO (or Interpol), who has made it his life’s work to arrest them. Miyazaki worked with the Lupin III anime in the 70s and even directed some episodes along with future Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata before finally getting to direct The Castle of Cagliostro in 1979 (end for the most party of Wikipediash part of the post).
As a franchise that existed before and after Miyazaki’s involvement, and again as his directorial debut, The Castle of Cagliostro is unique in comparison to his future work. Still, it is easy to see what attracted Miyazaki to the Lupin III franchise. There is a whimsical nature to the characters and a general fun lightness with which Miyazaki clearly enjoys playing around, whether that be in scenes where Lupin futilely tries to swim upstream after going over the edge of a man-made waterfall, or when he scrambles to make impossible jumps from castle tower to castle tower. Lupin is in many ways as much of a fantasy as many of Miyazaki’s future characters and offers a nice starting off point for the director.
So, what exactly is this film about? Well first it is loosely based on many of Maurice Leblanc’s works that have been merged to create a new work. Other than that, it is a pretty basic story. Lupin and Jigan go off to discover the source of high quality counterfeit bills, where they discover that Lady Clarisse is being hold hostage and forced to marry The Count of Cagliostro (the maker of the goat bills). From there, Lupin and his gang do what they can to rescue Clarisse and stop the Count once-and-for-all. It is a non-stop action thrill ride that builds to a thrilling, satisfying, and emotional conclusion.
Flashes of the future Miyazaki stylings can be seen throughout the film, starting most prominently with the beautiful shots of landscapes and background that will become a Miyazaki staple. His images of lush and idyllic countryside perfectly use the animation technology of the times, which could showcase beautiful images but was not quite capable as fine tuned movement with characters as we are used to today.
Miyazaki’s knack for using the last bit of his movie to tell story with emotionally moving images and music is also present in this film, as seen in a car chase featuring a happy, care-free Lupin and his gang driving away from a hot-in-pursuit Zenigata and his fellow officers. This, combined with the previous image of a wistful goodbye between Lady Clarisse and everyone else, creates a model that Miyazaki continues to use and perfects throughout his future films (though in this one he has yet to put his final credits over these images).
Some other points that will be interesting to continue to note in Miyazaki’s subsequent films are the way he handles characterization, and the subtle changes he makes to Lupin and his gang compared to other works in which they appear. Introducing a character like Lupin is tricky, as many already know who the character is, and thus don’t want to waste time being reintroduced to him At the same time, many who watch the film (especially those not from Japan) would not have any knowledge of the character, and thus can’t be expected to follow along without at least some intro. This is a tricky issue that Miyazaki handles wonderfully in the film’s opening sequence – a successful theft and an epic car chase.
The film starts with Lupin and Jigan completing a heist for what seems to be a car full of money, which Lupin quickly realizes is comprised of high quality counterfeits known as goat bills. Jigan and Lupin laugh as they literally let all of the goat bills go off into the wind and then head off to where Lupin is sure those bills were made.
As they drive along in the country where the bills originated, they spot Clarisse being chased by a car full of strange men. Without hesitation, Lupin moves to aid the fleeing Clarisse, and what follows shows all you need to know about the character: he is adventurous, has no fear, will do crazy things for women, cares more about the challenge of the crime than the score, and has mad skills. Even Jigan is shown to be just as fearless as Lupin, loyal, and a crack-shot with a gun.
All of this is done with little dialogue and a great amount of style that shows a surprisingly great amount of skill for a first time director. All of this was certainly a sign of the great things to come from Miyazaki in the future. This is just the beginning though, as Miyazaki finds ways to give virtually every character a time to shine in the film and gives more depth to characters whenever he can. All of these moments of characterization also have the fascinating effect of making changes to the characters from their portrayal in other iterations. Miyazaki’s Lupin is much more classically heroic than Lupin is generally known to be. For the most part, everything Lupin does in the film is for Clarisse, which to be fair is generally what he would do, but in the anime, for example, he would do it in order to sleep with her, while in the movie his intentions are much more noble, as for the most part he just wants to help her because she is a damsel in distress.
This is especially shown to be true at the end of the film, when she asks to come with him, but he leaves her behind with a tender kiss to the forehead, because she would be better off away from him. This change does little to alter how Lupin would have acted for most of the film, and his confident attitude still remains, but it colors his actions in an intriguing way that generally doesn’t exist in the anime. Fujiko similarly sees her more sexually driven-side eliminated in exchange for a more militant and noble disposition. It will be interesting to see if these changes are more reflective of how Miyazaki wishes to portray his characters in future films or just a take on the characters that he wishes to explore here.
Some final notes worth mentioning: it is fun watching 1979 animation, as seeing how far animation has come since then is fascinating. Also quite humorous are the old animation quirks, such as watching a yellow car becoming blue at night due to how coloring had to be done, or details such as rings not being animated at all time to save money. I had to watch the dub of this film, which for the most part worked pretty well and actually fit the quirkiness of the Lupin III franchise better than the sub might have. Of course, the voice acting was generally pretty awful, but that is to be expected. A lot of times the dubs for earlier animation are solid for the main characters, but then grow gradually worse whenever a lesser character has a line. This film doesn’t have that issue, but that is because the voice acting is generally rather poor. Many of the characters just don’t sound that different from each other, and their voices rarely come close to fitting the look of their characters – especially Jigan (who sounds just as young as Lupin even though he looks much older) and Goemon (who sounds like an old-timey gangster instead of anything resembling a samurai). On the plus side, now that the rights to the Lupin franchise have left Maurice Leblanc, the film no longer has to suffer from the character being called Rupan to avoid rights violations.
Overall, I would rate the film 3.5 out of 4 stars (I wasn’t going to do ratings but why not?). It is well worth watching for anyone who is an anime fan or even just a fan of the gentleman thief genre.
That’s it for The Castle of Cagliostro. This post was a bit more informative than I had originally intended, and we’ll see if that continues if I tackle more Miyazaki films in the future. Until then make sure to watch out for those ninjas!