Before Hayao Miyazaki reached far into the past for his material, or into dream worlds of his own devising for sustenance, he made movies entirely of their time. In the early 1970s, and again at the end of the decade, Miyazaki directed episodes of the Japanese TV show Lupin III, which consisted of the adventures of a stylish, roguish thief and his cohorts. (The episodes were themselves based on the comics by Monkey Punch.) Lupin, the grandson of the famous (fictional) thief Arsene Lupin, plots a heist in each 30-minute episode, all the while sidestepping the Interpol detective Inspector Zenigata, who’s always hot on his tail.
The episodes have that breezy 1970s flair. The haircuts are feathered; the fashions are loud and colorful; the soundtrack features funky synthesizers, cool vibraphone-centric jazz, and disco; the settings are Italian casinos and the French Riviera; the banter is quick-witted, noirish, and ever-so-slightly risqué. Lupin himself is a cross between the suave James Bond—already ready with a bon mot and a secret plan—and the moody, existential Jean Gabin of 1940s French cinema.
Of course, the low-budget production values mean that the backgrounds are often wispy and under-designed, and the character animation is herky-jerky. There are lots of still frames. Lupin III is fun, mostly, because it shows how influential Western pop culture was to Japan in the 1970s. The episodes are time capsules—fun, sure, but not built to last.
(It is worth noting, however, that the show’s laconic, witty loner hero has become an archetype for recent Japanese anime. For example, Spike—the hero of Cowboy Bebop—is just a futuristic version of Lupin III, down to the rumpled suit.)
So, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro doesn’t look that promising on paper. It’s the first feature film of a TV animator, based upon a derivative but admittedly diverting TV show. To make matters worse, the show and its source material were both very popular. Fun but weak material + first-time director + great popular demand = stakes is high.
Miyazaki, like Lupin, doesn’t show his sweat. The Castle of Cagliostro is frenetic, footloose, and funny as hell. Unlike the show on which it’s based, the movie doesn’t seem dated at all—okay, okay, the hairstyles are ridiculous—and is the closest thing to a comic masterpiece the filmmaker would direct until 1992’s Porco Rosso. It begins at breakneck speed—a helter-skelter car chase sets things in motion within the first five minutes—and doesn’t let up until the credits roll.
The first thing you notice is the drawing. No longer working on a poor man’s budget, Miyazaki’s team creates background art of astonishing beauty and depth, making the world in which Lupin operates so vivid as to be almost tactile. When a vast city of Roman ruins is unearthed, the contrast of the white columns and blue-black shadows is breathtaking. A view of the coast from a cliffside highway dazzles, even as the cars in the frame are careening against the railing. When Lupin walks on stone steps across a shallow pond, his reflection (and its colors) are distorted just enough to convince you it’s real.
Cagliostro’s animation fits perfectly into this painterly milieu, because it’s almost the total opposite. The movie’s stage is nearly photo-realistic, but the actors themselves are variations of vaudeville slapstick. Fluid and zippy, the characters move like the heroes of American silent comedies—Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Keystone Kops.
Lupin, in particular, pulls off an extended sequence worthy of a Harold Lloyd cliffhanger. A girl he loves is trapped in a high, seemingly unreachable tower on the Cagliostro grounds. Lupin—thin, wiry, and goofy-looking, just like Lloyd—decides to climb to the castle’s roof (again, just like Lloyd) and swing over, somehow, to the tower in question. Every step he takes—and all the perilous stumbles and slides—is punctuated by the short, low burst of a string section. An ominous flute plays as he balances precariously on a thin rooftop, fiddling with the rappelling apparatus that will get him to the tower.
The apparatus slips out of his hands and, clutching wildly at it, he falls down the incline. He builds up speed. His rubbery face exudes pure, comic terror as he realizes what’s happening. He’s built up so much speed that he can’t stop running, so he might as well go all the way to the edge at full speed, jump, and pray for the best. Miyazaki’s timing is exquisite—a few misjudged cels, and this plays like a horror film rather than high comedy—as Lupin makes the suspenseful, hilarious leap.
Every action sequence is as perfectly designed and executed as something out of early Steven Spielberg, but Miyazaki’s Lupin is smoother and less ramshackle than Indiana Jones. He might wear a rumpled suit, but he’s got a tuxedo in his soul.
Sometimes, Miyazaki tries to give Cagliostro too much class. A flashback designed to give us a sense of Lupin’s ultimately good nature reads as slightly sappy rather than soulful. The political overtones—the Count of Cagliostro garnered his fortune through a counterfeiting ring that helped create the Great Depression, the downfall of Napoleon, and practically every large-scale economic disaster of the past 200 years—are too broadly painted.
He gets good digs at class consciousness, mostly in sly asides. Inspector Zenigata is so dedicated to his work, and to following the rules, that he comes across as an uptight bore. Lupin’s improvised grace seems more natural, more human, even though he’s a criminal. When Lupin refers to Zenigata as “the stereotypical Japanese man,” it’s clear that Miyazaki intends to rattle the cages of his primarily Japanese audience. All the same, when the Royal Guard of Cagliostro sneers at Zenigata’s Interpol force, saying “We don’t need an Oriental to protect us,” we’re stung by this casual racism and suddenly identify with the detective. We can see the filmmaker straining for the moral complexity that he’ll master in his future films.
As political satire, The Castle of Cagliostro mostly tries too hard. As a full-throttle action comedy, though, the movie is almost peerless. It makes homage to so many genres that it’s dizzying, but it belongs to none of them. It’s not pure Miyazaki, not yet, but it’s a great cartoon all the same.
This, folks, marks the end of the Hayao Miyazaki blog-a-thon. Thanks for reading.