Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Castle of Cagliostro

(1979) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki; Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Haruya Yamazaki; Based on the manga series by Monkey Punch; Based on characters by Maurice Leblanc; Starring: Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Makio Inoue, Gorô Naya, Sumi Shimamoto and Tarô Ishida; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

The Castle of Cagliostro was like a clearance sale of all I had done on Lupin and during my Toei days. I don’t think I added anything new. I can understand why people who had followed my work were extremely disillusioned. You can’t use a sullied middle-aged guy to create fresh work that will wow viewers.” – Hayao Miyazaki (excerpt from “Miyazaki on His Own Works,” Starting Point: 1979-1996)

The Lupin the Third manga by Monkey Punch (aka: Kazuhiko Katou), about the grandson of elusive gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (based on the classic Maurice Leblanc character), has spawned a venerable anime series (there have been six series to date) and a 1974 live action movie (Lupin the 3rd: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy). After Lupin III’s first animated feature film outing, Lupin the 3rd: The Mystery of Mamo (1978) was a big success, a follow-up film, depicting the further exploits of the perennially elusive thief (Monkey Punch’s version had more roguish qualities, compared to his more genteel counterpart) was given the green light. After the previous film’s director, Yasuo Ôtsuka, passed on the sequel, Hayao Miyazaki (who had worked on the television series with his longtime collaborator and Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata) was hired to direct and co-write* The Castle of Cagliostro,** his feature film debut. Miyazaki’s version intentionally chose to appeal to a wider audience that was not necessarily familiar with Lupin III, featuring less emphasis on his unquenchable libido, and greater focus on the action sequences and elaborate settings.

* Fun Fact #1: Although Haruya Yamazaki shares co-writing credit, Miyazaki allegedly dispensed with his ideas for the film.

** Fun Fact #2: According to Reed Nelson’s commentary, the film was completed in seven months, an astonishing feat, considering the level of artistry involved.
In the opening, set in the late ‘60s, Lupin III (voiced by Yasuo Yamada), following in his grandfather’s footsteps, makes a killing at a Monte Carlo casino. Once again, he’s on the run from the indefatigable Inspector Zenigata (Gorô Naya), but the ill-gained cash turns out to be the top-quality product of a counterfeiter. Lupin III and Zenigata trace the fake currency to the sovereign nation of Cagliostro, and by proxy, its shadowy leader, Count Cagliostro (Tarô Ishida).* Lupin III finds Cagliostro’s operation an irresistible target, but in the process finds something he didn’t anticipate – falling for innocent Lady Clarisse (Sumi Shimamoto). Clarisse is destined to be wed to the unscrupulous count in order to preserve the purity of the bloodline (It’s best not dwell on this – suffice it to say they’re distant relatives). With relentless inspector Zenigata one step behind, he’s forced to make a brief, uneasy alliance if they wish to defeat the Count.

* Fun Fact #3: Yes, there really was a Count Cagliostro, Alessandro Cagliostro, an infamous 18th century occultist, con-artist and counterfeiter. You can learn more about him here.

Compared to his previous cinematic outing, the character of Lupin III might seem a bit tame, but Miyazaki didn’t eliminate the more unsavory aspects of the title character or his partners in crime, Fujiko, Jigen and Goemon. Instead he chose to emphasize other properties, including their teamwork. The film was criticized by Monkey Punch, who expected a more “mature” version of Lupin III, feeling the end results didn’t quite reflect his creation. I opine that the spirit of the characters is still there to see. The fact that Miyazaki toned down the sex and wanton violence for his story doesn’t detract from other versions; it only makes Lupin III a more three-dimensional character. It’s clear Lupin III hasn’t changed his old ways, but has become more self-aware, with an enhanced sense of honor. What we see is a more thoughtful version of the character, not exactly mellowed with age, but no longer a slave to his baser instincts and the rashness of youth. Looking at the character from a long view, The Castle of Cagliostro could be viewed as a chapter in Lupin III’s moral development. We know who he is, as do his cohorts, who treat his intentions toward Clarisse with skepticism. Based on his past indiscretions, especially regarding his former lover and sometimes ally Fujiko (Eiko Masuyama), their attitude is probably warranted.

The Castle of Cagliostro represents an early work from an artist who continued to stretch boundaries, working within the parameters of established characters. The character designs owe a debt to Monkey Punch, however, there are many signature touches that only Miyazaki could bring to the film. The movie features several key dialogue-free moments, which enable to viewer to catch his or her virtual breath, pause, and reflect before the next action piece (such as an extended shot of a character with wind blowing through his hair). Miyazaki referred to these moments as “ma,” an intentional emptiness (Source: On paper, it may seem extraneous but it’s all about pacing – a moment of calm before the storm. There are other Miyazaki moments peppered throughout the film, including Lupin III hiding in a lion’s head fountain. Through the stone lion’s mouth, we see his distorted face and squiggly eyes, which would be mirrored many years later in in Ponyo. Similarly, we see his love for depictions of flying and machinery. The Count’s gyrocopter and the castle’s clock tower are not simply props, but integral parts in the story. His action scenes have a wonderful, kinetic quality. In one spectacular scene, Lupin III scales the rooftop of Cagliostro’s castle, to infiltrate the inaccessible (to most sane individuals) tower where Clarisse is being held captive. Miyazaki and his team of animators masterfully convey the vertiginous heights, creating a genuinely frightening, exhilarating experience. I could feel my palms sweating, as Lupin III bounded among the rooftops, and hung precipitously by his fingertips, narrowly avoiding his doom.

Miyazaki was reportedly dissatisfied with the results, as he bowed to pressure from the studio, dashing his hopes for an extra month to finish The Castle of Cagliostro. If one were to pass judgment on the movie based on Miyazaki’s self-deprecating quote above, The Castle of Cagliostro would seem a failure for the filmmaker and the Lupin III franchise. With all due respect to Mr. Miyazaki, his self-assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, he set a new high for feature film animation and a dress rehearsal for his ambitious 1984 follow-up, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Working within the confines of the Lupin III universe, he added depth and likability for the Lupin character, allowing us to see the character in a new light. For many, including myself, this was an introduction to the world of Lupin III. Even if The Castle of Cagliostro wasn’t the final word on the character, it provided a gateway to his other incarnations, including Leblanc’s source material. Any way you slice it, it’s a unique chapter for the character, and a damn fine stand-alone film.

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