Review by Nicole Pedersen
Even if you don’t recognize his name, chances are if you pay attention to film at all you know the works of Hayao Miyazaki. The celebrated Japanese director is responsible for some of the best animated features of all time, including Princess Mononoke and the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away. Miyazaki is an animation legend, but just in case you are among those that think anime is either just for kids or just for fans of huge killer robots, let me bring you up to speed.
The Japanese embrace animation as an art form in a way American audiences never have. A cursory glance at a Japanese TV guide will reveal almost 200 animated programs in any one season not to mention the scores of full length features regularly released by their film studios. The most noteworthy of these, Studio Ghibli was co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki in 1985 and has since produced many of the highest grossing and most critically acclaimed films in Japanese history. A lucrative distribution deal with Disney Studios helped make Miyazaki an international star and his films are now sold on US shelves right next to copies of the Little Mermaid. Disney has also given several Miyazaki projects an all-star voice make-over for their American theatrical releases, including 2005’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
What many of Miyazaki’s newly minted American fans might not be aware of is that he started his career as replacement director for one of anime’s most beloved and profitable TV shows: Lupin the III. Miyazaki directed most episodes in the second half of Lupin’s 1971 debut season. By 1979 he was tapped to both write and direct Lupin’s second big-screen adventure, the Castle of Cagliostro. The film did well in Japan but remained largely unknown outside of anime circles. An earlier English-language DVD release was marketed to the Lupin fan-base exclusively. But now that Miyazaki is an international sensation, Anchor Bay Entertainment has released a Castle of Cagliostro “Special Edition” DVD with “from the director of Spirited Away” over the title. As Cagliostro is the very first film directed by the man known as “Japan’s Walt Disney,” it has the same sort of nostalgic cache as Steamboat Willie, for many Miyazaki fans. It is always fun to trace the evolution of a favorite artist.
The Castle of Cagliostro catches up with “world’s greatest thief” Lupin the Third in the Duchy of Cagliostro a tiny European nation that has been flooding the world market with excellently minted counterfeit bills. Lupin drives into Cagliostro to trace the source of this funny money and immediately finds himself in the middle of a high-speed pursuit involving the fair Lady Clarice. Playboy that he is, our thief immediately pledges to save the maiden and enlists the help of his crew to storm the mysterious castle of Count Cagliostro where she is being held against her will. Along with rescuing the lady in distress, Lupin also uncovers a centuries old secret inside the forbidding castle that involves many nations and their leaders.
Along for the ride are the Lupin series regulars: Jigen, the gruff marksman, Goemon the silent but deadly samurai and Inspector Zenigata, the police chief who routinely fails to bring Lupin to justice. Also making an appearance is sometime Lupin ally and love-interest Fujiko but as this is a fairy-tale adventure along the lines of Rapunzel, the sexy interplay between Fujiko and Lupin does not get a lot of play.
Truth be told, the Lupin the III on display in the Castle of Cagliostro is fairly distant from the one we see on his Cartoon Network re-runs. His sex-crazed James Bond persona has been toned down considerably, as has most of his accidentally/on-purpose bumbling. This is a slicker, more sincere Lupin relying more on his own wits than on the aid of his compatriots (who stay mostly in the background with little to do). There is still the air of playful fun to the character, but in a more PG-rated version. Also distinct from the TV series is the style of animation. This is a good thing. While I am all for that old-school, 1970’s look, it is refreshing to see a Lupin adventure with realistic background painting and a consistent color template.
It is in the animation and especially in the storyline that we can begin to glimpse the future promise of writer/director Hayao Miyazaki. Although working with a character he had no part in creating, Miyazaki still manages to put his own optimistic stamp on Lupin. The director’s theme of childhood innocence is present in the form of Lady Clarice and while the evil of Count Cagliostro is much more cut and dried than Miyazaki’s subsequent “bad guys” his hero is no less nuanced than Howl or Chihiro would turn out to be. Miyazaki’s Lupin stays true to the Monkey Punch manga character enough to be recognizable, but sheds most of his greed and gloss to suit a wider audience.
I have heard many fans call the Castle of Cagliostro the best of the 8 Lupin feature films to date. Thanks to the genius of Miyazaki this is more than true. Still, I found myself disappointed that his imagination was here limited by directing and writing for a character already firmly established in the minds of its viewers. Miyazaki films are magical because they seem to follow their creators fancy to worlds previously unimagined. Never predictable, always beautiful and satisfying when Miyazaki has the reigns the result is consistently awe-inspiring. Cagliostro may be fun and historically interesting, but it falls a mile short of Miyazaki’s finest work.
Video / Audio / Extras
The Castle of Cagliostro has been digitally re-mastered and is featured here in widescreen format. In addition to English, it also has Japanese and Spanish language features with or without subtitles. The DVD case lists the following as extra features: Complete animatic: storyboards with feature soundtrack, an interview with animation director Yasuo Ohtsuka, photo gallery and original theatrical trailers. I would love to tell you how these were, but my particular copy was missing the “extras” feature. Better luck with yours.
The success of Lupin the III helped launch the career of one of the world’s greatest animators, Hayao Miyazaki. For this reason alone, The Castle of Cagliostro is worth a watch. It may not be the truest representation of Lupin the III, and it certainly isn’t the best Miyazaki film available, yet it still has enough personality from each to make it fun and worthwhile. Perhaps the Castle of Cagliostro is best viewed out of context. If you didn’t know how raunchy Lupin was supposed to be or how fucking brilliant Miyazaki became you couldn’t be disappointed that either element was not on full display in this early film. Just think of it as a one-off anime adventure and you should enjoy yourself fine.