I am about to speak heresy. Ready? Here goes.
I didn’t warm to Spirited Away.
Yes, yes, string me up, burn me at the stake and so forth, but there’s only so much meandering whimsy I can take before the cynic in me starts to square up in protest. I just don’t enjoy being whisked away on childish flights of fancy like I used to; I crave heavy characterisation, sombre plotting, stuff that plays hockey with my intuitions in an irreverent style. In fact, after Spirited Away, I mutinied and crowned Satoshi Kon as the new overlord of my anime universe. Nevertheless, having stumbled across Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, I find myself once again bedazzled by Miyazaki’s magic.
As his first attempt to direct a feature film (preceding his founding of Studio Ghibli), Castle of Cagliostro is a rare chance to judge how far this seminal animator has come and to witness some of the traits he’s left behind. Much of the world looks recognisably fanciful as bubble cars drive up walls and the toy-like autogyros rattle across a backdrop of oddly-proportioned towers. Furthermore, this movie evidences the same incredible attention to detail in backgrounds and characterisation that newer fans will be used to. However, Castle of Cagliostro is also part of an ongoing franchise; thus the slapstick sketches and crime-oriented sequences carried from the Lupin III series feature strongly in the mix. Prepare for car chases, explosions, gun fights, zany gizmos, subterfuge, and convenient trap doors all vigorously stirred into a heady action-adventure that’s closer to Inspector Gadget than Princess Mononoke.
All these things aside, the story retains a meaty heart and never sacrifices depth or subtlety for cheap gags. There is still the tragic injustice of Princess Clarisse’s imprisonment; Lupin also displays an innate sense of fairness and a touching (if – as fans of the series argue – uncharacteristic) pure love towards Clarisse. At no time are these themes warmer than at their second meeting in her bedroom, when Lupin’s manner of comfort evokes not just hearty giggles but a stark appreciation of her joyless existence until that point. With such smart and funny writing at its core, emotionally connecting with the frenetic narrative becomes as easy as stealing candy from a Count.
While the characters look basic, the fluidity of movement and the detail in the backgrounds more than hint at the quality we now expect from Miyazaki. Particularly the action in this show still has the power to wow a modern audience. Take the sequence during which Lupin leaps from roof to roof on a moonlit night – note the stunning detail in light and shadow, the perfect comic timing of his limbs, the creative camera angles to add a touch of vertigo. This enshrines Castle of Cagliostro as a paragon rather than a victim of its age.
Castle of Cagliostro offers a classic, jazzy soundtrack much like a lot of Hollywood features of that era; it’s effective in the moment but rather generic to the Western ear. The audio shines, however, once the characters open their mouths. The late Yasuo Yamada (Lupin III, Dr Slump) brings a compelling dichotomy to Lupin’s personality – his voice takes on a high-pitched rasp when portraying the silly, cartoony Lupin, and a smooth tenor when showing the character’s suave side. The voice actors for the sardonic spy Lady Fujiko and the callous Count Cagliostro also deliver sparkling performances. In a shocking twist, Manga’s American dub turns out excellent too, delivering emotion almost as effectively as the original; for those who dislike reading subtitles, this will be a welcome reprieve from the usual vocal blunders. My only quarrel is with the addition of profanity in the American dub, which, although not terribly offensive to a young twenty-first century audience, still sounds unnatural amongst the otherwise family friendly dialogue.
After robbing a casino and discovering the bills are fakes, the hunt for the origins of the counterfeits leads Lupin to steal an even greater treasure – a beautiful princess. The moral problem is that he’s a thief and thieves aren’t generally admirable kinds of people. The practical solution is to make the princess want to be whisked from her terrible circumstances, meaning his act is not theft but rescue. Couple that gallant act with oodles of charisma and Miyazaki’s incarnation of Lupin III represents one of anime’s most unlikely and most successful heroes. One memorable scene has the evil Count open a trapdoor beneath Lupin’s feet, causing him to fall into the tunnel beneath. Lupin’s expression never changes from a self-satisfied smirk even during his fall – heck, I don’t think he takes his hands out of his pockets. Now, if hurtling a hundred feet into an abyss with God knows what in it doesn’t make you flinch, you’re either insane, courageous, or both. Anime fans will adore him.
Clarisse, whilst secondary in importance only to Lupin, is passively so; her role satisfies the story’s need for a brave, feeble damsel in distress but nothing more. Rather, coming second place for most enjoyable performance, Count Cagliostro, a stony-faced brute, is a man who steps down from his autogyro using his servants as footstools. He’s so dastardly, so insidious and creepy, that his interactions with fragile Clarisse turn my stomach. Although one-dimensional when compared to Miyazaki’s more recent antagonists such as Lady Eboshi, the Count’s outstanding scripting and Japanese voice acting ensure he remains grippingly hateful.
Castle of Cagliostro reminds me why I fell in love with Miyazaki’s work all those years ago. A tour de force even by his standards, it brings to life an exciting, heart-warming tale that defies its age and glows with old school charm. No doubt it will thrill a wide spectrum of viewers, from connoisseurs of comedy to those wanting a nostalgic treat without sacrificing excellent visuals. Unfortunately, Miyazaki is too busy winning Oscars to create further slapstick films of this calibre so grab your copy while you can.