More noise than signal

The Castle of Cagliostro

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Being, as we are, a movie podcast, we’re only looking at Miyazaki’s feature length output. This is, however, far from the full story of his career, which could sustain a podcast series by itself. In his early career, he covered a range of roles ranging from fill-in animator to character designer to director of a number of television serials, and it’s perhaps this multi-disciplinary grounding that lead to his mastery of the art down the road. So, 1979’s Castle of Cagliostro is neither Miyazaki’s first time in the directors’ chair, nor the first time he’s dealt with the gentleman thief Lupin the 3rd. It’s not, however, his first film for Studio Ghibli, which wouldn’t be formed for another six years after this TMS Entertainment produced film, but, well, despite the nominal title of these podcasts it would seem churlish to skip over The Castle of Cagliostro ( and Nausicaä, for that matter), because this a wonderful debut feature.

We’re dropped straight into the action, with Arsène Lupin and his sidekick Abraham Lincoln making a dash with a huge cash haul from the casino, only to find out that the money is counterfeit. The infamous “Goat money” has resurfaced, a high quality forgery that’s appeared at various critical points in history, often tipping world events one way or the other. Rumoured to come out of the small country of Cagliostro, Lupin and Lincoln (alright, Daisuke Jigen) resolve to solve this mystery that has so far claimed the lives of all who poked their noses into it.

They’re not long over the border in their souped-up Fiat 500 before they blunder across a young girl driving at breakneck speed from a group of thugs, and Lupin can’t resist helping out, which doesn’t go entirely to plan, but she does manage to hand off a signet ring to Lupin, indicating she’s a member of the royal family. It turns out not only does Lupin and Clarisse have some history together, but also that she’s being held by the country’s regent, Count Cagliostro, in advance of a forced marriage.

So, that’s just another reason for Lupin to go up against Cagliostro and his guards, and his ninja assassins, but he’s going to have to call for some back up from his samurai friend Goemon Ishikawa XIII and even a temporary alliance with his arch rival Interpol Inspector Koichi Zenigata, as they try and infiltrate and uncover the secrets of the Castle of Cagliostro.

This film is as old as I am, but has aged considerably better. Certainly, it’s much better looking. While admittedly both Miyazaki’s talents and animation technology has improved over time, this does not look like a pushing forty year old film, with well-realised, exciting action sequences rendered over beautiful backdrops. It’s all very well paced, rattling through at a breakneck pace that, if anything, is too quick for the amount of stuff crammed in there.

While it’s far from necessary to enjoy it, it does seem as though it’s taking some prior knowledge of the characters for granted. Which is odd, as having no experience of Lupin beforehand, Miyazaki has taken a far lighter interpretation of the character than the manga it stemmed from did. This may annoy purists, but should present no problem to the uninitiated.

Now, if there’s one thing I’ve said about every film, it’s that it would be better if it has samurai in it. Hidden Figures was a well made film about racism and sexism, but it would be better if it had samurai in it. The one thing missing from Lawrence of Arabia? Samurai. Blackfish? Documentary about killer whales? Needed samurai. One thing left unspoken in this constant demand is, of course, that samurai actually do something once they’re in the film, which is why the minimisation of anything at all useful for Goemon to do is kinda infuriating, and feels rather like a demand from the production company than a character essential to the story Miyazaki wants to tell.

But this, and anything else I could level at it, are nitpicks. Many directors will see out their career without making a film as enjoyable as Castle of Cagliostro, and that it’s arguably the least of Miyazaki’s works is more of a testament to the rest of them than a criticism of this.