Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro

Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, early in his career, takes the lewd, brash character of Lupin III and transforms him into a slightly more honorable gentleman thief for this breathtaking adventure.

People who are not familiar with the character of Lupin the Third are still likely to have heard of and perhaps even seen this movie thanks entirely to its being the directorial debut of Hayao Miyazaki in the world of feature film. Even many non-anime, non-animation moviegoers know Miyazaki’s name thanks to the man having single-handedly directing more “timeless classics” than the entirety of the Disney animation studios. These films include My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Several of his films (most notable Nausicaa) rank among my top films of all time, and I’ve never let a friend have a little kid without me sending them a copy of My Neighbor Totoro as a gift (usually accompanied by a copy of Godzilla’s Revenge, as both should be required viewing for any wide-eyed and adventurous kid who needs to be brought up proper).

But before Miyazaki became the greatest animation director of all time and left footprints of glittering gold everywhere he went, before he waved his hand and magically made the streams of Japan run rich with gumdrops and chocolate and all the Kit-Kats that kids taking school entrance exams buy for good luck, Miyazaki was naught but a lowly grunt director for the hugely popular Lupin the 3rd television series during its 1970-1971 run. At this point, I’m going to assume you are already familiar with Lupin III. If not, why not take this as a prime opportunity to familiarize yourself with him and his accomplices via our sort of half-assed history of the character in the previously posted review of Lupin the 3rd: The Mystery of Mamo? Miyazaki was one of several directors who worked on the series, alongside Yasuo Otsuka, who was to be the animation director for this movie. Otsuka had a long career in animation, stretching back into the 1950s and including work as an animator on 1960’s animated Monkey King adventure Saiyuki — released in the United States as Alakazam the Great — and Puss in Boots. In 1971, he became one of the directors for the Lupin television series, then went on to work on Panda! Go Panda and Future Boy Conan.

The script was written by none other than Japanese cinema maverick Seijun Suzuki. There are quite a few anime fans who are unfamiliar with live action Japanese cinema, and thus aren’t familiar with Suzuki’s reputation or his groundbreaking and delirious films. Similarly, quite a few fans of Suzuki’s films don’t realize that he dabbled in anime, working with his team to provide scripts for the Lupin television series as well as directing episodes of the 1984 run and the 1985 feature film, Lupin III: Legend of the Gold of Babylon under the pseudonym Kiyoshi Suzuki (unfortunately, one of the Lupin movies that is missing in action on domestic DVD as of this writing). Suzuki’s oddball yakuza films like Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter are often cited as being inspiration for Lupin creator, Monkey Punch, along with the original French pulp tales of Arsene Lupin, obviously (Lupin III being his great-grandson).

Unfortunately, Otsuka didn’t seem to care for Suzuki’s script. He brought in Miyazaki as director for the film, under the condition that Miyazaki provide him with an entirely new plot. I have no idea what Suzuki’s script was about, or if portions of it were salvaged for his later Lupin adventure. Even with Miyazaki’s new script approved, however, the movie had to be significantly altered during production due to a ridiculously tight shooting schedule that left them only four months to finish the film. According to Miyazaki, the finale was a much grander affair in the script than we got on screen — which must be something, since the finale is pretty spectacular as is. Still, Miyazaki has frequently expressed disappointment that an overly demanding timetable forced him to go with what he saw as a substandard sequence. As for what he originally had in mind, I can’t say, because I don’t think Miyazaki himself has ever said. In one of those twists of fate, the third Lupin film was originally slated to be directed by Mamoru Oshii (who would go on to greater fame with Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell, among others), until Oshii’s treatment was judged too weird, causing producers to give the job to Seijun Suzuki. Who would have every thought that Suzuki, of all people, would ever be brought into a project to replace someone who was deemed too freaky?

Shooting schedule aside, the film Miyazaki eventually made is Castle of Cagliostro, and it is consistently hailed as one of the hallmarks of anime and animation in general, which is an honor that would soon become synonymous with the work of Hayao Miyazaki. In Castle, one can already see the soon-to-be familiar Miyazaki style emerging in both the character design and the story. After the lusty, bawdy Mystery of Mamo, Castle of Cagliostro is a decidedly more innocent take on the character, and just as fans who know Lupin exclusively through Cagliostro must have been shocked the first time they sat down and watched Mystery of Mamo, likewise fans of the television series and first film must have found Miyazaki’s big-screen interpretation of the anti-hero thief a bit of a shift in gears. However, Miyazaki remains true to the spirit of the character and his cohorts (though we’ve rarely seen and would rarely see again Fujiko wearing such modest outfits) and plants them in the midst of what is undoubtedly one of the finest action-adventure yarns ever spun for the cinema.

We pick up, as is often the case, with cat burglar Lupin (Yasuo Yamada) and former yakuza hitman gone freelance Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) having just pulled off a heist that results in their tiny European style car being filled to bursting with stolen cash. The instant you see Jigen and Lupin in one of those little European cars, you know you’re about to get a chase scene. The little European car chase scene is a staple of the Lupin series, and every bit as integral to the formula as the ski chase is to Bond movies. For the record, Lupin favors the 1969 Fiat 500 from Italy.

Lupin and Jigen soon discover that the loot they’ve just stolen is all counterfeit, but this seeming setback puts them hot on the trail of a set of legendary counterfeiting plates that are so perfect that there’s practically no way to tell real money from counterfeits made with these plates. The trail soon leads them into contact with an innocent young woman, her boorish snob of a guardian, and a conspiracy that has affected the world’s monetary markets for centuries. Needless to say, the adventure will also cause Lupin and Jigen to cross paths once again with brooding samurai Goemon (Makio Inoue) and big-bosomed sometimes-competitor, sometimes-partner Fujiko (Eiko Masuyama), who manages to keep her clothes on for the entire film, as opposed to the last movie, where she was constantly falling out of whatever garment she half-heartedly threw on. Despite its status as an animated feature, Cagliostro is still one of the most breathtaking, pleasing, and flat-out fun swashbuckling adventures ever filmed, stuffed to the gills with sword fights, guys scaling castle walls, dungeons full of skeletons, hijinks in a gyrocopter, secret chambers, and other quality adventure staples.

The movie is set in magical Miyazaki-Land. Drawing on fairytales and Japanese misconceptions about what it must be like in Europe, the world of Castle of Cagliostro is all twisting medieval roads, rolling green fields, glittering lakes, crumbling ruins, and majestic Bavarian style castles. It’s a dreamlike fairytale amalgamation of Europe past, present, and purely imagined, complete with a knight in shining armor (or at least in a garish seafoam green blazer), a usurper to the throne (or the fortune), and a damsel in distress who gets locked away in the tall tower of a castle. Just as Western films tend to present idealized and stylized representations of Asia, here we get a highly stylized hallucination of a Europe that doesn’t quite exist but seems eminently believable since so much of the iconography is so familiar (European films themselves would create equally fairytale like representations of their own past in the sword and sandal adventures of the 1960s). Miyazaki spares no artistic expense in bringing his modern fairytale Europe to life. Every hand-drawn frame is stuffed with detail. The characters are constantly in motion (Lupin is, as usual, a flailing bundle of gangly limbs) and backgrounds are lush and colorful. As with all of Miyazaki’s work, Castle of Cagliostro is a testament to the potential of classic, hand-drawn, pre-computer assisted cel animation. For my money, only Akira and some of the films from director Rintaro can match Miyazaki for the sheer amount of gorgeous detail they fit into each frame.

Beautiful artwork can only get you so far, however. The rest is up to the characters and the story. The script written by Miyazaki and Tadashi Yamazaki (aka Harauya Yamazaki, who would go on to work on Space Adventure Cobra) is a perfect blend of fairytale romance (in the purest definition of what the word used to mean), comedy, and action setpieces that are highlighted by the aforementioned car chase, a battle with razor-clawed ninjas (or whatever the Frenchy butler equivalent of ninjas would be), and the climactic clock-tower showdown. Miyazaki keeps the film quick-paced without ever glossing over detail or skimping on character development. What I really like about the script here is that it is scaled back. There is always a tendency when a character makes the transition from television (or manga, or American comic books) to movies to make the story in which they find themselves a huge “save the whole world” sort of affair. Mystery of Mamo definitely gave in to that temptation (though it was still an incredibly good movie), and while it’s fun to see the character operating on such a grand stage, I appreciate that for the second film, rather than go even bigger and more outrageous, things were reigned in. Cagliostro is a much more intimate film, which allows for greater character development, but at the same time it boasts action scenes that are even better and more thrilling than what was seen in its more sprawling predecessor. Although the implications of the counterfeiting conspiracy could potentially affect the whole world, at its heart, Cagliostro is simply the fairytale story of a hero rescuing a damsel from an evil jackass.

Each of the primary characters is easy to like, even when they were at their greediest and most ribald in the previous film, but Cagliostro really excels at making Lupin and his crew into characters about which you care, which makes the story and action much more enthralling. They’re helped to no small end by Count Cagliostro himself, who is the picture perfect brutish, rich jerk that fans of Lupin so love seeing their hero take apart. Caught in the middle of it all is poor old Inspector Zenigata (you didn’t thin they would leave him out, did you?), voiced as usual by the superb Goro Naya. As would become common in the cinematic adaptations of Lupin, Zenigata starts out the film determined to arrest Lupin at all costs, only to later be forced into an uneasy truce with the thief when he discovers a far greater evil than Lupin’s sticky fingers.

Miyazaki’s experience with the characters through working on the television show is obvious, as is his desire to do something a little different with them. Cagliostro isn’t what you’d call a reimagining of the characters, but it is markedly different without every betraying what draws people to this lovable cast of rascals. Lupin is still a rakehell, but his fiery loins are temporarily in check as he throws himself into rescuing Countess Clarisse (Sumi Shimamoto) from her overbearing and abusive guardian, Count Cagliostro (Taro Ishida), who can only maintain his hold on the Cagliostro fortune by dominating young Clarisse. In fact, Lupin seems even more committed to the welfare of this young woman — completely without sexual advances, for once — than he is to uncovering the secret of the counterfeiting plates. Although knight-errant is a departure for Lupin, the shift in motivation is well explained and believable. For once, he truly is a gentleman thief. Even Fujiko also seems less interested in the double-cross. Jigen and Goemon are their usual gruff, lovable selves, but all of the characters seem infused with a more innocent energy than we’ve seen before.

Countess Clarisse (named after the original French pulp novel Lupin’s wife) does little more than fulfill the doe-eyed damsel in distress role and foretell Miyazaki’s lifelong obsession with young princesses. She looks almost identical to Nausicaa (though most of Miyazaki’s young female protagonists look similar), and the design of her character stands out somewhat compared to the design of Lupin, Jigen, and Goemon. Lupin had a long-standing established look, but Miyazaki also possesses a very strong sense of how he wants his material to appear. For the most part, he manages to adapt each of the characters to his style, keeping them looking like they should, with just a few tweaks here and there. Clarisse, however, is pure Miyazaki. And even though she’s the weakest of the characters, it hardly matters since it’s up to Lupin to carry most of the story anyway. And he’s written to do so with a refreshing gusto. Even though they are only cartoons, it’s easy to forget that and see Lupin as an actor who is absolutely excited about the movie and giving his role every ounce of energy he has. If you have ever doubted the ability of an animated character to really act, then Castle of Cagliostro should banish those thoughts from your mind. It’s not just the voice acting, either — Miyazaki and his staff put tremendous effort into facial expressions and body language. It is far and away the easiest time I’ve ever had forgetting that what I was seeing was animation.

This was the final go-round for Miyazaki in the Lupin universe, save for returning to direct a couple of episodes of the 1980 run of the series, under the pseudonym Tereki Tsutomu. He worked a bit more in television during the first half of the 1980s, then in 1984 directed one of my absolute favorite films, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. In 1986 came Laputa, Castle in the Sky, followed in 1988 by My Neighbor Totoro. After that, the sky was the limit, and Miyazaki became one of the biggest — if not the biggest — name in Japanese animation in particular and Japanese film in general. During the dark days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Japanese film industry seem to crumble entirely, Miyazaki films were the only domestic productions Japanese moviegoers would bother to go watch in the theaters.

Which is ironic in a way, because Castle of Cagliostro was an infamous flop upon its initial release, panned by filmgoers for being too sweet and childish and not at all what they demanded from the thieving cad with whom they’d fallen in love. It was a family-friendly version of Lupin, albeit family friendly in the classical sense of the word, which meant you could still have smoking, shooting, skeletons, and ninjas with razor blade claws. Like the films of Akira Kurosawa, Cagliostro didn’t find success until it sought it overseas. It was the first animated film to ever be screened at Cannes, and Western fans, unfamiliar with the Lupin III character but able to recognize the European backdrop and universal adventure appeal of the movie, championed its cause. Decades later, the initial cold shoulder given the film has been all but forgotten and Castle of Cagliostro has taken its rightful place among the upper echelons of animated classics.

Even people who find Lupin irritating can probably rally behind this film. It’s packed with everything good adventure filmmaking should have. There are plenty of films in the world that have been tagged with the “one of the greatest films ever made” hype, but Cagliostro is the rare movie that really lives up to its rep. It’s not often that you can find a movie that is this energetic and fun. It’s hard not to grin like an idiot through the whole thing, so why resist?