Few names carry as much weight in the world of anime as Hayao Miyazaki, one of the true patron saints of Japanese animation. Responsible for a long string of wildly popular and deeply influential animated features, his particular blend of visuals and storytelling style is so distinctive, it is practically its own genre. And while anybody who enjoys a Miyazaki film has their own personal favorite, there is little doubt that Miyazaki’s feature directorial debut is one of the hallmarks of his long and storied career. If you have any unsecured valuables lying around, you might want to see to them, because we’re about to recount one anime’s greatest adventures: The Castle of Cagliostro.
When the infamous gentleman-thief Arsène Lupin III—and his trusty, gunslinging sidekick, Jigen—discover that the money they heisted from a Monte Carlo casino is all extremely skillful counterfeit, the pair travel to the tiny European nation of Cagliostro in search of the source of the fake bills. And while Lupin has designs to steal the plates for himself, a mountainside car chase between a runaway princess and a few cars full of machinegun-toting goons suggests there is more to this sleepy country than meets the eye. As Lupin tries to rescue the sweet Princess Clarise from her wicked finance, Count Cagliostro, he discovers an ancient family crime, a global conspiracy as old as history itself, and yet another reason to reunite with his usual suspects—the wandering samurai Goemon, the rival/love interest Fujiko, and the often foiled but never defeated Inspector Zenigata. All of them band together against their common enemy in Count Cagliostro and his army of minions, while seeking different kinds of treasure: financial wealth, the thrill of battle, professional respect, and maybe even a shot at redemption.
There are plenty of folks who dislike Castle of Cagliostro because its style is a sharp and more family-friendly departure from earlier versions of the character, who was far more ruthless and criminal in his dealings. But for those coming to Lupin III for the first time, or for those who perhaps weren’t big fans of the earlier versions of the character, Castle of Cagliostro is a superb feature of Japanese movie-making.
Much of this movie’s visual humor—and there is plenty of it—comes from how Miyazaki subverts the particular quirks that so much other anime uses as its crutch: the saucer eyes, the exaggerated motions, the loosey-goosey relationship with physics, and plenty of other visual clichés. Miyazaki makes use of a few of them to set up some really funny scenes, like when Lupin tries swimming against the current of a swiftly moving underground river; the gravity-defying antics of Lupin’s Fiat 500 as it drives up walls; the way in which Goemon expertly cuts away Lupin’s flaming clothing as he falls from a great height and lands perfectly through his car’s sun roof; and Lupin’s insane leaps across the sky as he tries to find a way into Clarise’s tower. It’s all kind of bonkers, but when we see it here, it feels like it’s got a wink and a nod built into it. Miyazaki knows how silly it all is. The secret is that the rest of the story never takes itself so seriously that such things can’t exist, but it never so embraces its goofiness as to descend into inanity.
Castle of Cagliostro is a fine movie not because of its qualities as an anime, but because it’s just a terrific caper story told with plenty of gusto, wit and heart. This is the kind of story where you come for brawls with ninjas and gyrocopter escapes, but you stay for the characters. Part of Lupin III’s appeal—and this goes for the entire cast of characters—is how they remain relatively static. Lupin will always go for the big score, but ultimately do the right thing along the way. Jigen will always to be a more conventional crook, but he’ll never desert his friend. Goemon searches for the one thing in the world that will truly test his swordsmanship, knowing that he’ll never truly find it. Fujiko will range from tarted up femme fatale to a ready-to-go rival who is more than Lupin’s equal, but she’s always done in by the fact that behind it all, she’s just as soft on Lupin as he is on her. And Inspector Zenigata knows he’ll never catch Lupin, but he gets to travel the world doing it, making a career on collaring all of the bad guys he encounters along the way. As far as living on consolation prizes, that’s not half bad. These characters have all been thus for decades, and seeing them again is like wrapping oneself in a warm blanket. That’s what makes them so much fun; their reliability.
Those qualities are distilled to perfection in Cagliostro, but what sets this one apart is how it spares time for Lupin to reflect upon his career as a thief: where he came from, what he has accomplished, where he is going, and what it all really means. Normally, we might get this kind of introspection from such a long-running figure in a story reserved for the end of his career. But no; Lupin takes time to think about things here not because it’s time but because Miyazaki gives him the time. So much of the screen time of this genre is spent on exposition and thrills that it can’t afford to spend a minute catching one’s breath. But this movie can’t afford not to, which is where it gets moments of unexpected sweetness. It’s why, when Lupin decides to save the princess, it’s not because he’s a wolf looking for love, but because he knows that whether he meant to or not, he stole this girl’s heart a long time ago, and now he has to give it back. It’s a rare thief story that involves such a turn, but then again, Castle of Cagliostro is a rare thing, indeed.