Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro

One of Lupin‘s greatest scores

Spoilers to follow…

1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro is a nexus point of interests for me. Hayao Miyazaki and Lupin the Third are both figures that have been subjects of fascination to me for the better part of 20 years now—though it would take a few years after being introduced to them to learn of their connection. For Lupin, it is a film that forms the cornerstone of one of his most often seen characterizations and a high watermark of cohesive quality for the franchise, both still being chased but never recaptured to this day—seen as recently as 2019’s perfectly serviceable The First. For Miyazaki, in his feature debut, it is a warm farewell to the gentleman thief who had been an important presence in his early career and the first of many elegantly straightforward, economic in form, and rich in craft and personality theatrical efforts. And for me, Cagliostro, for the record only my fourth favorite Miyazaki film, is a source of nourishment. A soulful and endlessly charming film that I can sit down with and always find myself getting caught up in its whirlwind caper like it’s the first time.

In an early scene, Lupin and trusted partner in crime Jigen look out across a beautiful lake with the titular castle in the center. An imposing jumble of towers and buildings majestically jut from the water. Snow-covered mountains line the horizon. The small castle town where the duo will later grab a meal and attempt to spend the night can be seen. A Roman aqueduct stretches out across the water to the fortress from their scenic position. The magic hour lighting and nearby ancient clocktower tell us that the day is spent. The pair of thieves take in the lay of the land as their next big job. The remaining runtime of Cagliostro will be spent exploring this lush playground with a gleeful and tactile sense of adventure. The hidden passageways connecting the castle and masking its secrets, dizzyingly high towers, the rotting dungeon deep below. It’s a wonderful invitation, begging you to dive into this carefully thought-out space, and it never fails to get me excited for the adventure to come. It would be easy to characterize this as Miyazaki sizing up the animated movie landscape stretched out in front of him, looking ahead and ready to take it on with resolve. But this scene, one of my very favorites, to me is both emblematic of his holistic approach to direction, guiding nearly every aspect of production (well known to levels of tyrannical perfectionism), and an overview of the path full of whimsical television adventures behind him.

Miyazaki is no stranger to using his films as personal reckonings. At one time, he described Porco Rosso as his most personal yet and it had the tag line “this is what it means to be cool” attached to the promotion. The older, a bit more collected Lupin of Cagliostro is a less jaded but clear precursor to Marco. The Wind Rises, one of several projects for a time believed to be his last, is a thinly veiled personal accounting of a complicated professional legacy. And if The Never-Ending Man documentary is anything to go on, the long in production How Do You Live? promises to be a hell of an intimate experience.

Fittingly then, Cagliostro is the first of many looks back for a director well known for his bleak outlook for the future. Having taken over the second half of the first television series in 1971 with long time collaborator and future Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, Miyazaki treats the film as a goodbye to Lupin. Seen here sporting his green jacket, firmly establishing this Lupin as an extension of the character seen in the first series, distancing from the red jacket of creator Kazuhiko Kato, the then airing Part II, and the sleazy chaos of the previous year’s Mystery of Mamo. And it isn’t hard to see a warm personal fondness for the thief in nearly every frame. Miyazaki sees Lupin as a sort of chivalrous magician knight, bringing wonder, hope, ultimately freedom to the imprisoned Clarisse in her cold tower but at the same time, owning that he exists on the fringes of polite society. All mirroring his own feelings that animators can conjure joy along with the somewhat distrustful view of the profession’s commercial applications.

In a flashback, Lupin reflects, “I did crazy things” set to a montage of sexy dangerous activity which typically sells the character and it plainly evokes the escapades of the 1969 pilot film and the opening sequence of the first series. Miyazaki makes a clear point to discard those stylish hallmarks, his gun and Mercedes-Benz SSK, like the toys of a younger and wilder man out to prove himself. He melts the Walther P38 with a quick laser blast before it can be fired and replaces the upscale car with the endearingly beat-up Fiat 500 (no doubt drawing from his own beloved and constantly busted Citroen 2CV) which has now all but replaced the Benz in the broader franchise tool bag. This Lupin is also noticeably poorer, living out of a tiny car stuffed gear, ashtray overflowing with old cigarettes, nearly bald spare tire, and eating dehydrated noodles. His tools aren’t fantastic gadgets, the kit he uses to make a fake ring is well worn and looks like it would belong in a craftsman’s shop. His arsenal of tricks is better suited to a performer than a thief.

A little older and wiser, though still ready for improvisation, this Lupin is willing to take in the situation with a good long look when the moment calls for it. I was struck during my most recent viewing just how willing Miyazaki is to simply let a scene sit in silence. Once hungry for women, jewels, and the thrill of the chase, time has begun to reveal that these materialistic urges won’t satisfy the soul. It’s the quietest and most introspective we’ve ever seen the rogue. Miyazaki somewhat dismissively called Cagliostro a “clearance sale” of his Lupin ideas, and seasoned viewers can certainly spot familiar images and scenarios, but there’s rarely been such care and focus given to the character and his presence in the world.

Under all of this fascinating context though, Cagliostro is first and foremost a masterclass in rollicking entertainment. Kicking off with an escape from a fancy casino, Lupin and Jigen start the film racing, bags of loot in hand. Their celebration as they speed away is cut short however when the former notices the bills filling their tiny car to the brim are counterfeit—not just any old fakes though, legendary Goth currency. Before even a moment has passed, Lupin switches gears, declaring their next target to be the source of this fabled money and the pair embark on a road trip to the small European nation of Cagliostro. Not long after crossing the border, they find themselves helping a young woman in a wedding dress being pursued by a well-armed group of thugs. At the end of the energetic car chase, one of anime’s finest put to screen, they lose the girl to reinforcements but come into possession of a valuable clue, a ring with a goat insignia. Investigating the nearby ruins of a mansion, Lupin becomes lost in distant thought and it is clear this isn’t just another heist. Years earlier, during Lupin’s younger days, winkingly implied to be the period that saw Kato’s original manga first published, he brazenly attempted to conquer the castle with nothing but a smirk and running start only to barely escape with his life. This time, it’s a personal quest to reapproach a past struggle with a level head and the benefits of age and experience. Miyazaki fills every scene with sentimentality and a breezy romanticism, he wasn’t looking to burn Lupin down or send him into retirement with finality. Naturally, the samurai of few words Goemon, the always-running-a-grift Fujiko, and a surprisingly competent and stern Inspector Zenigata make their appearances but this is very much Lupin’s show.

Core tenets and flourishes that would later gain worldwide acclaim in Studio Ghibli output are plain to see. Springy action that commits to fluid and expressive motion, there’s just so much damn character to the way everything moves. The animators imbue a weighted and tangible physicality to the way characters scramble up walls and navigate the castle’s many traps and hidden facets. A deep reverberating interest in natural elements and handmade human structures can be felt throughout. There’s a painterly grace to Cagliostro‘s world that draws you in. There’s even a purposefully anachronistic flying machine realized with meticulous detail as a getaway vehicle. The Count and his legion of armored Pagan ninja henchmen are just the right kind of classic old world archetypical villains that warrant a hearty cheer when the gang finally mounts a counteroffensive. It may be a taste of what was to come in many ways but the film also feels like an extension of the Toei Doga style of family-friendly cinematic adventures of the 1960s, which isn’t surprising given that Miyazaki (serving as director, scriptwriter, and storyboard artist), mentor and director of animation Yasuo Otsuka (who himself left a deep and lasting mark on Lupin still seen to this day), and assistant director Shigetsugu Yoshida had all cut their teeth at the studio years earlier. And many younger staff members would later reteam with Miyazaki down the road. It’s such an interesting middle point of artistic legacies.

Fans at times find Cagliostro to be an outlier in the broader Lupin canon, a little too schmaltzy, not quite pulpy enough, its director’s fingerprints too pronounced. But its influence has sunk into the deepest depths of Lupin. The broader franchise has been more than happy to loot the motions and iconography of the film, Lupin heroically coming to the aid of a young girl with family trouble related to a treasure that isn’t what it seems is basically the outline for nearly every one of the dismal to barely tolerable two dozen-plus TV specials, but rarely bothers to grab the underlying intent or heart on its way out. The most recent TV outing, 2018’s Part V, went to great efforts to callback to and represent many of the disparate stylistic approaches to Lupin taken by artists over the decades. Miyazaki’s presence of course loomed large and a late episode even revisits the castle, lovingly recreating the location. The series concluded that Lupin and the gang are immortal staples in pop culture, near-mythic figures open to different lenses of interpretation but always fixed far off in the distance, never quite knowable as human beings. I enjoy this ending a lot, it speaks to the timelessness of these characters and their unending ability to put a smile on my face. It is perhaps the best way to reaffirm the franchise capping off the 2010s’ renaissance of experimentation and diverse outings.

But once upon a time, someone looked at Lupin as a man moving through life and growing. The Castle of Cagliostro is always going to be special to me. It is simply put one of the most out-and-out fun adventures for a cast I love to death. Hayao Miyazaki’s direction never fails to engage my full attention and imagination long after the credits roll. And I can continue to return and notice new details and appreciate the sheer craft and consideration of it all. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it at this point and I can’t believe I only just recently caught that Jigen is wearing Halloween vampire teeth during the third act wedding hoopla. I wouldn’t dare make any declarations of what is or isn’t “definitive” Lupin, that is asking for an existential nightmare, but Cagliostro is unquestionably essential. It is not without many good reasons it is rightfully held up as a classic among classics.

Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro is available through Discotek Media on Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K.

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