REVIEW: Castle of Cagliostro

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They say Miyazaki’s retired, huh? Despite unconfirmed reports that he recanted on his decision to step down during a radio interview at the new year, it seems plausible that The Wind Rises will be his last anime feature film. Rather than go through the inevitable retrospective, however, I thought it might be more interesting to look back at his very first film as director. For my money, it’s also one of his best.

Released in 1979, The Castle of Cagliostro is a jaunty, old-fashioned caper film fashioned after the chic European thrillers of the ’50s and ’60s. It stars Arsene Lupin III, gentleman thief and professional smartass, who, along with his sharp-shooting colleague Daisuke Jigen, has just robbed the grand casino in Monaco, only to discover that all the money was counterfeit. Acting on a hunch that takes them to the tiny dutchy of Cagliostro, Lupin and Jigen set out to find the source of the bills and steal the printers’ plates (purely for safekeeping), but may have bitten off more than they can chew, when Lupin gets in the way of an armed gang chasing a young woman in a wedding dress.

Oft likened to James Bond or Indiana Jones, Lupin III is one of Japan’s most enduring comic book icons and was at the absolute peak of his popularity when this film was released. Unfortunately, the audiences hated it.

Exact details of its box-office performance are rather sketchy (allegedly, it bombed), but Lupin fans were up in arms at what Miyazaki had done to their beloved characters. Originally an arrogant playboy, Lupin was now a kind-hearted rough diamond; willing to put his neck on the block to protect Cagliostro’s innocent princess from her power-hungry suitor. Lupin’s crazed, leering nemesis, Zenigata of Interpol, was now a square-jawed gumshoe with the wit to realise that Lupin’s cause might be the right one. Sex and death were out. How could this possibly work?

Try, “magnificently”.

Unburdened by the series history, it’s easy to see that this film is a swashbuckling masterpiece, pitting our wisecracking outlaw-hero against a sneering, aristocratic villain in his trap-filled lair (the titular castle). It’s a simple story of good versus evil, but it’s told with such gravitas and flair that I would defy anyone, young or old, not to find something in it to appreciate. It’s not so violent that you’ve got to turn the kids away (if you’d let them watch Henry Jones Jnr, you’re on safe ground), but it’s sophisticated and exciting enough to keep the adults watching too. It’s also incredibly accessible. You don’t need to know anything about Lupin, Japan or anime to pick this one up.

Being a Miyazaki production, it goes without saying that the film is visually stunning too. Cribbing notes from his earlier work on a TV adaptation of ‘Heidi’, Miyazaki sculpts a sumptuous vision of verdant European countryside, apparently unspoiled by modernity and the scars of World-War Two. Particularly splendid is the fairy-tale castle itself; an impossibly grand, yet eminently believable construction that is at once a palace, fortress and prison.

It may not have been true to the original, but this heroic version of Lupin certainly left his mark. Miyazaki continues to voice only dissatisfaction with his work on the film, but re-releases and the rise of the Japanese home video market soon turned Cagliostro’s reputation around. As early as 1987, new Lupin adventures were using this film, not the manga, as their blueprint; a trend that still continues today.

Frequently lumped in with the Ghibli canon (although a Miyazaki film, Cagliostro predates the studio’s founding by some ways. Should it come up in a pub quiz, the first Ghibli film is actually “Laputa: Castle in the Sky”. You’re welcome), Castle of Cagliostro is readily available in the UK on both Blu-Ray and DVD. Incidentally, don’t believe trailer man in the clip I’ve linked below – rumours may persist, but there’s no evidence Spielberg ever said that.

Various other parts of the Lupin franchise have filtered through into the English-speaking world, with 2012 tv series “The Woman Called Fujiko Mine” recently getting a release through Manga UK. It’s an interesting show and something I might talk about some other time, but a word of warning: taking its cues from the original manga rather than anything Miyazaki, it is absolutely not suitable for children. ‘Adult Situations’ would be putting it mildly…

Take a peek at this video.

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