Miyazaki’s First Movie: Review of Castle of Cagliostro

In my last article on Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, I mentioned that the movie felt like a pale echo of The Castle of Cagliostro. That got me thinking about how good Castle of Cagliostro actually was, and how little it gets discussed nowadays. I often run into anime fans who don’t even realize it was Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film, that before Totoro and Nausicaa and all the rest, he worked on a “little” movie based on the TV series of Lupin III. Those who have seen it can likely recall its hilarious slapstick, great character dynamics and its cheerfully over-the-top action sequences, but for those that haven’t had a chance to enjoy it, here’s my two cents on the title!

 

Lupin of the Rings

The plot is as light and sweet as a truly delectable cream puff. After a particularly thrilling heist, famed gentleman thief Arsene Lupin III (grandson of the original Arsene Lupin) and his friend Daisuke Jigen discover that their money is all counterfeit; the source of the counterfeits are traced back to a small country called Cagliostro, and they decide to seek out the original plates so as to profit off of them. They soon encounter a young princess named Clarisse who seems to have some sort of past with Lupin. She is being forced to marry the regent of Cagliostro, a Count with a ruthless streak and an obsession with finding the fabled hidden treasure of Cagliostro. The rings belonging to his family and Clarisse’s will somehow unlock the treasure, hence the forced marriage. Complicating matters further are Inspector Zenigata, Lupin’s old nemesis, and Fujiko, his former lover and a cat burglar in her own right. A comedy of alliances and rivalries spin out as everyone races to control the counterfeit plates, the rings, the treasure, and the fate of Clarisse herself.

 

Action with springs attached

Before launching into the movie as a whole, let me get one thing out in the open.

This movie has the best car chase EVER.

Not just in terms of anime, no, best car chase in ever medium ever made.

Okay, I’m somewhat exaggerating, but even Steven Spielberg has commented that the car chase in the opening sequence is one of the best ever put to film, and that’s no faint praise. It perfectly conveys the kind of movie you’re about to see: fast, furious, funny, and possessed of a joyful disregard for anything remotely resembling the laws of physics. A lot of people would actually call it the high point of the movie, and that’s just in the first five minutes!

Luckily, the rest of the movie manages to match, if not surpass, this opening sequence with a constant torrent of comedic action sequences that offer an almost Warner Brothers’ like logic to the way the world works. Character swim up waterfalls, bounce across castle rooftops, plunge off of clock towers, and generally embrace a sort of elastic reality where physics no longer apply but everything still makes a sort of odd sense. It’s like somebody made something that combined James Bond and Mario. In fact, I’d say this GIF pretty much sums up the giddy, happy kind of action this movie offers.

But that’s not to say there’s nothing here except action. While the plot is very slight, it’s well executed, and more importantly, it has a lot of heart and humor behind it. Miyazaki is in fine form with his characters (who, in this case, are mostly borrowed characters), and with the exception of the Count and his lackeys (all graduates of the Mustache Twirling Academy), all the major players are immensely likable and steal the show without bogging the movie down. My personal favorite is Inspector Zenigata, who hits the picture-perfect balance between his obsession to take down Lupin and his responsibility as a detective to do the right thing. This leads to a hilarious and effective partnership between them, and the last scene between Zenigata, Lupin and Clarisse is absolutely perfect in terms of tone and conveying the strange but genuine connection that the thief and the detective have. Fujiko also deserves a mention as her mix of humor and hyper-competence probably makes her the most successful person in the whole movie.

Playful Puff

What really makes Cagliostro work is that it never, ever takes itself seriously. Miyazaki movies always have a certain amount of whimsy, but some of his works can lean a little on the earnest side, with moments of genuine heartache and drama (e.g. Chihiro’s anguish in Spirited Away, Howl’s agonizing transformation, etc). This is pure, delightful, joyous fluff from beginning to end. The story never bogs down, the characters never get annoying, and the narrative never gets too deep for its own good. Again, it’s a cream puff, and who derides a cream puff for being light and fluffy? You may not come away from the movie feeling like your life has changed or like we’ve gleaned new, gripping insight into the characters, but chances are you will come away thinking that you had an awesome hour and a half. If you haven’t had a chance to see Castle of Cagliostro, definitely give it a chance. If you have, maybe it’s time for a rewatch.

 

What’s your favorite scene in Castle of Cagliostro? Are there any other anime movies or series with awesome and hilarious action sequences you’d like to recommend?

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