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Miyazaki Masterclass – THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO (1979)

When it comes to animation, no name is as beloved or revered as that of Japanese director-writer-animator-producer-myth maker, Hayao Miyazaki. His films are sumptuous and colorful, fantastical and heartwarming in equal measure and he is by far one of the most consistent auteurs in film. He co-founded the incredibly influential Studio Ghibli along with fellow great animator Isao Takahata in 1985 and has been the biggest name in Japanese animation for close to 40 years. His most recent film, The Wind Rises, was said to be the great director’s final film, and with the recent news that Studio Ghibli is restructuring and possibly phasing out its feature animation department, it seemed the perfect time to look at each of Miyazaki’s 11 feature films in turn and explore the fun and fancy of a storytelling genius, which is what I will do in Miyazaki Masterclass.

Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature is actually an extension of his work on the 1970’s anime television series Lupin the Third, based on the popular manga Lupin III. The series followed the exploits of a roguish, well-dressed master thief named Arsene Lupin III, grandson of the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin. Miyazaki and Takahata both jointly directed several episodes of the first series that ran from 1971-1972. The first Lupin III film, entitled Mystery of Mamo was released in 1978 and directed by Sōji Yoshikawa. This proved successful enough for a sequel to be made, which Miyazaki directed and co-wrote with Haruya Yamazaki.

In The Castle of Cagliostro, we immediately see the distinctive visual style that Miyazaki would become known for. It’s full of sweeping vistas, exciting action sequences, and the characters all have that very particular look that Studio Ghibli would make famous a few years later. Surprisingly, it also has two things Miyazaki includes in almost all of his work and exemplify the man’s love of scientific fantasy: castles and flying machines. It becomes all the more curious if, like, you watched this film last of all. The movie has Castle in the title, but surely there wouldn’t be any aeronautic contraptions in it, right? I was very incorrect.

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The film begins with our charming anti-hero Lupin and his right-hand man Daisuke Jigen robbing the Monte Carlo casino of heaps and gobs of loot. While escaping in Lupin’s tiny Fiat, he notices that the money is all counterfeit and hence completely useless to them. They decide to travel to the Grand Duchy of Cagliostro which has long been rumored to specialize in impressive counterfeiting. Not long at all after arriving, they see a young girl being pursued by thugs and Lupin, the dashing ruffian that he is, swoops in to save her. After the fracas, he recognizes that she is the Clarisse, the princess of Cagliostro, and that she is soon to be married to Count Cagliostro, the regent of the area. The marriage will secure the Count political and royal power. Not a nice guy.

Lupin, whilst snooping around, discovers plates for all sorts of counterfeit currencies in various countries, implying that the Count is indeed behind all the fake money. The Count doesn’t take too kindly to Lupin’s searching and sends assassins out to kill him. To help, Lupin and Jigen call their other compatriot, the noble samurai Goemon Ishikawa XIII to give them some backup, and also Lupin’s nemesis Inspector Zenigata to tip him off about the plates. Lupin also encounters his former lover, the River Song-esque woman of action Fujiko Mine posing as Clarisse’s handmaiden and gets some info from her. Seems the Count needs both his own ring and Clarisse’s ring to wield the power he wants to, but Lupin has it (having stolen it earlier) and the Count is holding Clarisse captive until the ring is returned.

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The movie speeds along with lots and lots of action until the finale wherein the Count and Lupin have a duel inside a giant clock tower, a scene that has influenced later films like Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective. The film’s overall action style is also said to have inspired Steven Spielberg’s work in the Indiana Jones movies and The Adventures of Tintin. For being not a long movie, 100 minutes only, Miyazaki packs in the action and adventure and even though the plot is pretty in depth, it nevertheless flows very nicely and the characters are all very well drawn (both literally and figuratively).

Miyazaki took some heat initially for this movie from, go figure, fans of the source material. They accused him of softening all the characters, making Lupin more outwardly heroic, de-sexualizing Fujiko, and making the sidekicks much more likable and funny, which they tended not to be in the manga or original series. Knowing nothing about either, to me it just seems like typical Miyazaki before he had a typical to be. In all of his films, as we’ll see, there is a sense of making the stories fun and sort of wholesome. Even if they’re violent and scary or about the end of things (as we’ll see next week), he still makes the tone rather friendly to everyone involved. The Castle of Cagliostro is maybe his least family-friendly film (especially if you listen to the 2001 English dub which makes the language very PG-13), but it’s still no more racy or violent than any Indiana Jones and a lot less so than a 1970s James Bond film.

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With The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki proved he could helm a feature film and could adapt a manga into an exciting adventure movie. For his next feature, which would be five years away, Miyazaki would adapt his own manga series and would usher in the beginning of the proper Studio Ghibli style, which would follow immediately after. And he went a completely different direction with it, moving from a globetrotting caper to a monster-filled apocalyptic world of airships and sword fights and, as would be his third defining feature after flying and castles, a very strong central female character. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is next time. For now, check out The Castle of Cagliostro, available on Hulu right this second.

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