With prices for cinema tickets now reaching ridiculous heights it’s not often I will treat myself to a new release unless it’s something I simply cannot wait for. Instead, I’m happy to content myself with a cheap DVD or a film on TV which may have slipped through my critical net and, believe me, there have been far too many. Whether the films featured here are recent or old I’ll still be providing my honest opinion on them and, with the benefit of hindsight in many cases, may offer a slightly different take to contemporary reviewers.
The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Prior to forming Studio Ghibli in 1985 Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki, worked on many projects with his first film as director being The Castle of Cagliostro in 1979. The second film instalment in the Lupin III series, also a popular TV show, The Castle of Cagliostro marked a pivotal phase in Miyazaki’s career that would lead him onto Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and then to the formation of Studio Ghibli the following year. Having recently read about the early career of Miyazaki in Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata I was fascinated to see how The Castle of Cagliostro would stand up to his later films.
The film begins with renowned thief Lupin III and Jigen driving away from a successful heist in a Monte Carlo casino only to find their ill-gotten gains are in fact counterfeit. The notorious fake money known as “goat bills” is traced to Cagliostro and it is here that Lupin III and Jigen head to locate the source of the counterfeit money. On the way they meet a young woman, Clarisse, who they rescue from pursuing thugs in the middle of a car chase, only for her to be swiftly captured again but not before leaving a ring with Lupin who is unconscious after falling from a cliff. Recognising the intricate carving on the ring from his past, Lupin and Jigen endeavour to rescue Clarisse, who turns out to be a princess, from the clutches of the Count of Cagliostro who desires Clarisses’ ring to help unlock a secret treasure passed down through her family. It’s an opportunity for Lupin III to do good for a change but with the consolation of treasure awaiting him as well how can a renowned thief resist?
The Castle of Cagliostro opens at a frenetic pace with Lupin III and Jigen driving away from Monte Carlo, their car practically bursting with money. After deciding to go to Cagliostro and encountering Princess Clarisse they soon recruit Ishikawa XIII, a samurai expert, and also tip off the gang’s nemesis, Inspector Zenigata, to their whereabouts to cause problems for the Count. Lupin III also has the headache of his former lover, Fujiko Mine, who is posing as a lady in waiting for Princess Clarisse, and clearly has an agenda of her own. The fast pace never really lets up for Lupin III and his gang who negotiate car chases, rooftop pursuits, dungeons and the rescue of a damsel in distress while preventing the Count getting the treasure. As experienced a thief as Lupin III is, he finds nothing straightforward in Cagliostro and frequently faces life and death situations.
The characters in The Castle of Cagliostro complement what is impressive animation for a film that was made on a low budget. Lupin III while frequently displaying ingenuity in the trickiest of situations also comes across as a bit of a comical buffoon; he isn’t perfect but that makes him all the more likable. Princess Clarisse is the traditional damsel in distress but her growing feelings for Lupin III do help her display impressive resolve when the film draws to a conclusion and a face-off with the Count of Cagliostro is inevitable. Then there’s poor Inspector Zenigata who Lupin III only invites to Cagliostro as a diversionary tactic that enables him to gain access to the Count’s heavily guarded castle. In the midst of the film both Lupin III and Inspector Zenigata find themselves trapped in the castle dungeons and are forced to put aside their usual roles in the criminal cat and mouse game and have to work together. All the characters contribute to a story that remains entertaining right up to its dramatic conclusion.
Being pre-Studio Ghibli there are bound to be some issues with the quality of The Castle of Cagliostro. Although Miyazaki did some work on the Lupin III TV series, there is still the feeling that this film isn’t quite a Miyazaki special just as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) was, being adapted from someone else’s work. Miyazaki has made a perfectly accessible film adaptation of a popular Japanese TV series but when you look at Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, also pre-Studio Ghibli and created by Miyazaki, it is more akin to the animation master’s later works that he is now famous for. I found The Castle of Cagliostro entertaining throughout and for its age the animation was excellent but inevitably it isn’t quite of the same high standards as the work of Studio Ghibli. That said I still consider it essential viewing for Miyazaki and anime fans in general.
The Castle of Cagliostro is a thrilling crime caper with an amusing and delightfully devious leading man in Lupin III. From the opening scenes to the conclusion there is action aplenty, great characters, an engaging storyline, a memorable final confrontation between Lupin III and the Count of Cagliostro, and even a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. While not Miyazaki’s finest work, this is still an early indication of the master’s talents and would set him on course to create some of the greatest works of animation there have ever been.
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