(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. For the month of May, we’re taking a deep dive into the lively, humanist wonders of one of animation’s greatest voices, Hayao Miyazaki.)
You can tell a Miyazaki movie from moment one – the bright, summery landscapes, the rounded, intriguing character designs, the impeccable sense of geography and architecture that goes into every frame. Much of the time, particularly in his work with Studio Ghibli (which we’ll take on later in the month), that visual invention is put to intriguing subtextual ends – Mononoke exploring man’s relationship to nature, Spirited Away our understanding of death, and so on. But sometimes you just need some well-constructed comfort food, some light-hearted swashbuckling to cleanse the palette. With The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki cut his teeth doing just that, making it one of the greatest anime adventures of all time.
Adapted from Monkey Punch’s popular mange series Lipin III (episodes of the anime version Miyazaki had directed prior to this), The Castle of Cagliostro follows dashing gentleman-thief Arsene Lupin III, who rides into the fictional country of Cagliostro to track down the source of high-quality counterfeit money that’s flooding into the global market. (Naturally, he discovers this scheme after stealing a bunch of it from a casino in the film’s opening minutes). From there, he and his sidekicks, the chain-smoking Jigen and stoic samurai Goemon, uncover a plot by the dastardly Count Cagliostro to force marriage onto the demure Lady Clarisse, thus ensuring his access to the true treasure of Cagliostro, whatever that might be.
Despite it being Miyazaki’s first feature-length film, Cagliostro is as assured as any of the director’s other output. So many of the filmmakers’ stylistic signposts are there, from the vividness of its vaguely-European setting to the meticulous staging of its high-speed action sequences.
It’s rumored that Steven Spielberg took inspiration for this film for the complicated escapades of the Indiana Jones films, and you can see why: from top to bottom, Cagliostro moves like clockwork, Miyazaki and co-writer Hayura Yamazaki throwing their impishly clever protagonist into one impossible situation after another, forcing him to overcome it with his wits, gadgets, and the help of three or four incredibly-competent sidekicks. It’s hard not to look at the film’s first big setpiece, a high-speed car chase down winding mountain roads to save Clarisse from Cagliostro’s goons, and not think of some of the best capers Raiders of the Lost Ark had to offer.
This is also the first (and only) time Miyazaki ever worked from pre-existing material, though he took great pains to change the manga’s central character in a way befitting the filmmaker’s more upbeat, idealistic ideas of heroism. The Lupin of the manga and anime is a more openly unscrupulous figure; he’s a lecherous cheat who drives a Mercedes-Benz because it was “Hitler’s favorite” car.
Watching Castle of Cagliostro for the first time feels like unearthing a lost Indiana Jones movie, or the Tintin sequel we hope Spielberg will get around to any day now.
In Cagliostro, Lupin is much more openly heroic, if unconventionally so. He’s got the clumsy bohemian swagger of a Spike Spiegel, grinning and shambling his way from situation to situation while decked out in his iconic teal blazer, black button-up, and bright yellow tie. Instead of the Benz, he drives around a junky Fiat 500 that gets banged-up in the aforementioned chase sequence and stays that way for the film’s remainder. He’s still a self-professed “womanizer”, but that assertion is leavened by said bluster frequently blowing up in his face. (While Clarisse herself is a classic damsel in distress, his associate Fujiko – changed from the buxom sex object of the manga into a camo-wearing spymaster – is an amusingly competent counterpart.) He cuts a pathetic, try-hard figure, but that’s exactly why his enemies underestimate him so.
While the zippy adventure story at the heart of Cagliostro contrasts widely with the introspective complexities of most Miyazaki films, its sense of visual wonder feels right at home. The titular castle, a beautifully-rendered clockwork edifice complete with sky-blue spires and extendable walkways, encapsulates the fantastical vision of Europe held by many Japanese at the time (akogare no Paris, or ‘Paris of our dreams’). Set against beautiful blue skies and verdant green grassland, the environments of Cagliostro are as pretty as any Miyazaki’s ever created, a beautiful backdrop for the light-hearted action at its center.
Watching Castle of Cagliostro for the first time feels like unearthing a lost Indiana Jones movie, or the Tintin sequel we hope Spielberg will get around to any day now. Far from feeling stale because we’ve seen what it inspired, Miyazaki’s first film instead feels like an exciting showcase for a filmmaker coming into his own. While he’d reach greater heights with his work at Ghibli, the exploits of Lupin III get him off to a fantastic start.