Review: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

This week, I’m turning back the clock to the late 1970s and the feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). Castle of Cagliostro PosterThough of course I’m a fan of several of his later films under Studio Ghibli, I’m surprisingly poorly versed in his earlier work, and this classic had somehow escaped my attention. With it recently resurfacing on Netflix UK, when better to give it a chance? Cagliostro follows master thief Lupin and his accomplice Jigen as they trace the source of counterfeit bank notes to the titular castle in the Principality of Cagliostro before getting involved in breaking up the forced marriage of the kingdom’s young princess to its evil count.

I’d been reluctant in the past to give Cagliostro a chance because the ‘70s animation style didn’t really appeal to me. Indeed, the stylistic choices really do date it, and I generally much prefer the more modern, realistic look of anime like Shirobako or Your Name, filled with extra detail that technology, budget, and even talent allow. To say that Cagliostro is dated however is not to say that it has aged poorly: there’s real beauty in the flow of the animation, especially during action sequences, full of little hand-drawn visual tics that are completely lost in a lot of CGI-heavy contemporary anime. One of the best scenes comes early in the film when Lupin and Jigen first arrive in Cagliostro and interrupt a car chase between the fleeing princess, Clarisse, and some of the count’s goons. The movement and flair of Lupin’s little Fiat 500 exceptional. Cagliostro is highly influential, and I’ve always thought that the little hop the police van does in Ghost in the Shell as it clears a hill was riffing on this style; I’m even more sure now I’ve seen this chase.

Castle of Cagliostro 3
The most memorable sequence is surely the car chase. Lupin drives a Fiat 500, the car of lead animator Yasuo Otsuka. Clarisse’s car is a Citroen 2CV, director Hayao Miyazaki’s first car.

Even though some scenes and character designs are very light on detail, others are stunning; the scenes where Lupin is scampering around on the rooftops of the castle are breathtakingly vertiginous. And the design of Lupin himself (as well as Jigen) is clearly highly influential on later works like Cowboy Bebop, where Lupin and Jigen closely resemble Spike and Jet. I’d wondered how much this could be attributed to Cagliostro when the film is itself an adaptation of a long-running manga and a continuation of a long-running animated adaptation, but it seems that Miyazaki (who not only directed, but wrote and storyboarded the film) significantly altered the characterisation of Lupin and his associates to be more upbeat, happy-go-lucky, and even heroic, and its that characterisation that is echoed in Cowboy Bebop. I find it interesting that The Castle of Cagliostro stands out in pop culture so strongly even though it’s the second theatrical Lupin III film, after The Mystery of Mamo (also titled simply Lupin III or Lupin vs. The Clone) in 1978, and follows on from two earlier anime television series – I think that has to be a testament to Miyazaki’s version being the most resonant, even if it apparently strays from the source material and other incarnations.

Castle of Cagliostro 1
Much of the film has a quick, easy style low on detail, but some shots like this are exquisite

Overall it’s a fun film, with a good balance of comedy, mystery, and action, and filled with amusing details – like how the cops pursuing Lupin are direct from Saitama, cruising around the pseudo-Italian countryside in their Saitama-marked police cars. It’s impossible for me to tell how many of these touches are Lupin staples or Miyazaki inventions without delving into the manga or other films or television series (which at this stage runs to several hundred episodes). I could not tell you why, for example, the backup that Lupin calls for comes in the form of Goemon, a katana-wielding samurai in flowing white kimono. I never felt, though, that I was missing something by not having seen any of the other Lupin media – indeed, I was of the mistaken belief that Cagliostro was the debut film, and I wasn’t even sure if the anime or the manga had come first. The Castle of Cagliostro absolutely stands alone, with the more surprising moments merely feeling like surprises rather than as references that I didn’t ‘get’.

Castle of Cagliostro 4
After the delightful Fiat 500 chase, Lupin’s rooftop scramblings are my second favourite part of the film. Miyazaki’s choice of angles and the feeling of speed and momentum combine to make it deliriously vertiginous.

Several years later in 1984, Miyazaki would follow this film with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Then in 1985, he founded Studio Ghibli with fellow directors Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. Aside from a couple of episode of the Lupin III television series completed under a pseudonym, Miyazaki never returned to the gentleman thief theatrically. Other fascinating directors did – including the late Seijun Suzuki co-directing The Legend of the Gold of Babylon (1985) or Yuri on Ice!!! director Sayo Yamamoto’s series The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (2012) – and I might look in on them later on Kino 893.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro /  ルパン三世 カリオストロの城

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Japanese Release Date: 15th December 1979

Version Watched: 100 min (Netflix*)

*Given the translation of the counterfeit bills, Gōto-satsu / ゴート札, as “Gothic bills”, this appears to be based on the 2015 Discotek Media DVD/Blu-Ray release

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