Monday, February 23, 2015

Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

What happens when you take one of the most popular anime franchises of the time, and put a legendary animation director at the helm? You get a movie that is filled with action, adventure, humor and even a bit of pathos. But fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s other work may find only hints of the director’s voice in this film. After all this was his first crack at helming a feature film, and with a character as well established as Lupin III, his creativity was a bit limited. But sometimes boundaries make the final product even more impressive.

Lupin III (Yasuo Yamada) and his partner in crime Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) pull off an amazing heist of a casino in Monte Carlo. After a crazy escape, the two realize that all the money they just stole is counterfeit. Lupin decides to use his unparalleled skills of thievery to hunt down the source of the bills and put a stop to operation. The thing is, Lupin tried this little gambit once before, and failed!

The counterfeit money comes from the independent kingdom of Cagliostro, where a mysterious Count (Taro Ishida) is currently ruling as a regent. When Lupin arrives in the kingdom, he happens across a car chase in which a lovely young woman, Lady Clarisse (Sumi Shimamoto) is being pursued by goons. Turns out she’s engaged to marry the sinister Count as part of mysterious dark ritual. Before you know it, Lupin is infatuated with Clarisse and is doing his best to thwart the Count and his plans. Of course all your favorite characters from Lupin III will make an appearance before the film ends. But do any of them have a chance of escaping the Castle of Cagliostro alive?

Good Points:
  • Some amazing animated action and settings
  • The story uses fairy tale tropes in some interesting ways
  • Moves along at a brisk pace keeping the viewer engaged in the fun

Bad Points:
  • Lupin and his pals have been mellowed a bit from their original versions
  • Some of the humor doesn’t quite click
  • The classic animation style may not be slick enough for some viewers

If you are looking for a fun adventure flick, you can’t go wrong with this movie. Miyazaki focuses on keeping everything moving forward and keeping things light and humorous. Some fans of Lupin may find the whole thing being a bit too light, and the criminals to be less fearsome than their television versions. But Miyazaki is essentially telling a fairy tale with Lupin playing the dashing rogue and the Clarisse the trapped princess. In that vein, the film is a lot of fun, maybe too silly at times, but worth checking out.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review
Lupin. The helpful neighborhood thief. 
When I took a look at the work of Mamoru Oshii’s work in anime it was interesting to see that he got his first directorial film job tied to a major franchise: Urusei Yatsura. But after that film he branched out into his own stories or adapting stories that fit closer to his own worldview. Interestingly enough, Hayao Miyazaki followed a similar career path. His directorial debut for a film was tied to the incredibility popular franchise for Lupin III, but his true passions and storytelling would be unleashed in his following films. So how does Castle of Cagliostro fit into his filmography?

Even surrounded by murderous ninjas, Lupin isn't phased.
Miyazaki actually directed some episodes of the first couple seasons of Lupin III so the character and the world were not new to him. But with full creative control of the film he decided to take the series in a slightly different direction. He kept true to the basics, a caper film with a dash of humor and plenty of action. But he made Lupin and his pals less miscreants and more like chivalrous rogues out to right wrongs. He toned down Fujiko Mine’s (Eiko Masuyama) overt sexuality, but made sure she still kicked plenty of butt (strong female characters would become a Miyazaki standard). Finally he introduced a character embodying innocence and youth: Clarrise . This character is unique among the women Lupin normally encountered, and may be a sticking point for some viewers.

But when it comes to visuals Castle of Cagliostro has some really impressive moments. The action scenes are a real highlight, with Miyazaki letting things go a bit crazy with some physics defying fun. This isn’t new for the Lupin franchise, but may seem a bit unusual compared to Miyazaki’s more realistic bend in his later films.

An amazing visual climax within the clock tower.
Some fun moments include an opening car chase in which Lupin attempts to save Clarrise from goons. Lupin’s little yellow Fiat takes a beating and it reminds me strongly of the escape early in For Your Eyes Only, where Bond is reduced to driving a ridiculous little car to evade gun happy enemies. Later in the film Lupin and Jigen infiltrate the castle using the elaborate aqueducts. There’s some impressive animation as the two hurtle down tunnels and into a room full of cogs and mechanical devices. But the highlight is the final confrontation between Lupin and the Count in the clock tower of the Castle. Here Lupin imitates classic comedy moments from both Charlie Chaplin (in Modern Times) and Harold Lloyd (Safety Last). It is a dynamic sequence with some real visual flourishes and intensity. This sequence has gone on to inspire other animators such as the team behind The Great Mouse Detective and Batman: The Animated Series.

Gyrocopter out of control!
But perhaps the most Miyazaki inspired visuals of the film come from the flying sequences. His love of flight and aerial visuals takes root here. While I think he really nails it in his next film, Nausicaa of the Valleyof the Wind, we see plenty of evidence for his skill here. A gyrocopter features in the plot. During Lupin’s first attempt to rescue Clarrise it hurtles all over the screen. Fujiko uses a hang glider to escape peril a little later, and then you have Lupin’s rooftop romps that both defy gravity and physics, but are so much fun to watch.

Nausicaa... I mean Clarrise encounters Lupin III.
For the character design, things stay pretty close to the established look of Lupin III. The biggest change is for the smoldering Fujiko, who is much more demure then normal. She doesn’t vamp it up or give any fan service, but she’s still tough and goes full Rambo on the bad guys in one great scene. But Fujiko just looks closer to Miyazaki’s character design for the “older sister” type characters we see in later films like Kiki’s Deliver Service or Spirited Away. Clarrise herself looks a lot like a Miyazaki heroine. In fact her resemblance to Nausicaa is uncanny. Her character is much more innocent than the princess of the later film, but they could be sisters.

Lupin and Jigen get their first look at the castle.
One last item to note about the animation of Castle of Cagliostro is the amazing attention to detail in the kingdom itself. Miyazaki loves old Europe, and here we get the first taste of visual elements we’ll see further developed in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso and Howl’s Moving Castle. You get a real sense of place in this film, with its gothic towers, bustling inn and Roman aqueduct. It is something that not all anime films get right, but can be very important and affecting for the viewer.

You know these two are listening to jazzy tunes.
Sound effects are handled well. There are a few moments where really cartoony sounds for jumping or falling are used. Once again, it fits the goofier feel of a more comedic Lupin III, but seems strange compared to the more realistic tone of later Miyazaki films. Music is composed by Yuji Ohno. He also composed the music for the second series of Lupin III, the one closest to the release of Castle of Cagliostro. As such, it sounds just like what you’ve heard from the previous series: jazzy, a bit silly, but energetic and even gothic when needed. Ohno’s music works well in the franchise scope, but Miyazaki would turn to a different composer for his next film.

The darkness and the light of Cagliostro.
I watched this in Japanese, and the cast does a fine job. Most of them were quite familiar with the roles having performed them on television.  Both Clarrise and the Count do a very good job with the good and evil in Cagliostro. While the acting is solid, some fans have complained about character changes. Lupin III is much less of a horn dog, and more suave. He also is less ruthless. Jigen is also toned down, coming across as a warmer cuddlier version (reminding me more of Jet Black from Cowboy Bebop). Even Goemon (Makio Inoue) seems to have a shimmering heart of gold when Clarisse appears. All these good friendly guys have caused some fans of classic Lupin III adventures a diabetic shock from all the sweetness. But Miyazaki is giving us a fairy tale adventure. For Clarisse the charming rogues are the heroes, and no shades of grey are really allowed. Lupin admires her purity, not her body, and that is how the story plays out.

Lupin on fire. Goemon posing... typical day for these guys.
It is Miyazaki’s shift of focus that makes Castle of Cagliostro stand out from other adventures featuring Lupin III. The playful spirit has been amped up. The romance (tame and pure as it is) between Clarisse and Lupin is more of a focus. The perils are fun and over the top. The count himself, while a despicable man for sure, never feels like a real threat. You never doubt that Lupin and his pals will get the upper hand in the end. Even Inspector Zenigata (Goro Naya) feels more toothless than usual. Because of that, the thrills seem less potent than Miyzaki’s later works. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind has some very powerful enemies featured, and Princess Mononoke is one of the least black and white entries in his entire filmography (and because of that, the danger always feels real).

Lupin sweeps Clarisse off her feet.
Also the over the top comedy and shenanigans are just going to rub some viewers the wrong way. While Miyazaki would often inject comedic moments in his later films, the humor was more organic and sweet. Here, things are more slapstick and farcical. It’s all in good fun, but it isn’t subtle and I know some people find it pulls them out of the more adventurous parts of the film.

But fun is the name of the game when it comes to Castle of Cagliostro, and that is what you get. It has some great characters, some amazing visuals and keeps you entertained throughout the run time. It is hardly the greatest of Miyzaki’s films, and may be least impressive. With that said, if Castle of Cagliostro is your least impressive film – well damn sir, you are well on the road to being a master. Hayao Miyazaki is a master.

A fairy tale ending.
And no I wasn't kidding. Fujiko goes John Matrix
on the Count's goons. Did I mention I love


  1. The rogue who is easily tempted to virtue seems to be a favorite character with authors and audiences. I guess it allows us to have the cake and it it too: a bad boy who is a good guy.

    I sometimes prefer classic animation over some of the hi-tech graphics of recent years. The latter can get a bit creepy, as it notoriously did in Polar Express.

    1. So true. The charming rogue always seems to have more personality and pizazz than the pure white hero. One of the reasons I always favored Han Solo to Luke Skywalker. :)

      Uh yeah, "Polar Express" was creepy looking. I think Zemekis did a better job with "Beowulf" but even that had it's odd moments. Traditional animation has it's limits, I think it takes so long to do things right that it can be frustrating during the creation process. CG shortcuts work out really well, especially in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. But when you see the care taken for films like "Akira" or anything by Miyazaki, you really appreciate the art.