The first film Hayao Miyazaki fully directed is always in need of rediscovery…
Welcome to Hank’s Corner! This is the new, weekly spot where Henry Gilbert will do what he does so well on Cape Crisis‘s marquee segment. He’ll spotlight a cool new book, Blu-ray, TV series, candy bar, and tell you all about why you should care just as much as Henry does! And this week’s entry…
Like most people watching his films over the past decades, these last couple years have been wistful ones for fans of Hayao Miyazaki like myself. The 74-year-old put out The Wind Rises, a film that certainly feels like a goodbye, which was accompanied by a formal announcement of his retirement. As if that wasn’t enough, the superlative documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness not only catalogs Miyazaki’s genius in action, it also portrays him as a gentle, aging man aware that his film making days are ending. So, as his career reaches its climax, it’s fitting to look back at Miyazaki’s first shot at film directing with Lupin III film, The Castle of Cagliostro. The rollicking adventure shows how far he and his team have come, and how his talent was undeniable even 30-plus years ago.
In 1979, Hayao Miyazaki already had an incredible resume. Usually as second-in-command to Isao Takahata, Miyazaki worked on classics like Prince of the Sun and Future Boy Conan, and had followed Takahata to anime studio TMS to work on a TV series based on Monkey Punches’ indulgently silly and violent Lupin The Third manga. Takahata and Miyazaki oversaw work on the first series, and when it came time for TMS to produce the second Lupin feature film, they gave Miyazaki the reigns to create Castle of Cagliostro as director, as well as writer and lead storyboard artist. Miyazaki had more influence than ever, and he used that to add his personal stamp to the series that still provided nonstop action from start to finish.
Lupin and his collaborators Jigen, Goemon, Fujiko, and even constant foil Zenigata team-up to save a young woman from losing her kingdom to an evil count. Lupin and co. head to the faux-European nation of Cagliostro, where they search for the owner of some of the finest counterfeit money on the planet. The battles between Lupin and the Count are some of animation’s most exciting action sequences, including Jigen’s impossibly fast Fiat, Lupin fending off a collection of ninjas through tight Italian-style streets, and an epic final confrontation in a clock tower that Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective stole without improving on it. And its top-of-the-line animation is as fluid now as it ever was, showing that great 2D cartoons can be ageless with the right touch.
It’s a spy thriller, a fairy tale, and a farce all rolled into one. Arguably, the only thing it really isn’t is a faithful adaptation of Lupin. Whether wearing a green or red coat, Lupin is hardly a gentlemanly thief with a hearth of gold, as seen in Cagliostro. Instead of saving damsels and planning escapes with his enemies, Lupin is more likely to callously kill scores of other thieves, act like a selfish pig, and make unwanted advances towards beautiful women, usually series sex symbol Fujiko. That Fujiko keeps her clothes on for the entire film is proof enough that Miyazaki really distanced himself from the source when crafting his first feature film.
Because, even with the occasional nods to Lupin’s history, Castle of Cagliostro is overflowing with the tropes and motifs you’d find in almost all of Miyazaki’s later work. There’s the strong young woman in a major role, there’s a love of classic European architecture, some background art full of pastoral greens against vivid skies, and a love of aviation that’d follow Hayao until his final film. Even the little touches are there – no one animates people eating quite like Miyazaki and his team…
So, while it lacks the inventiveness of the worlds he created from scratch, this is a Miyazaki production through-and-through, deserving of occupying the same shelf as any of his Ghibli productions. So, how’s the best way to see Castle of Cagliostro now that I’ve convinced you of its worth? Well, the whole thing is available on Hulu right now, which is certainly the easiest way to see it, though hardly preferable.
Why shouldn’t you watch the above version? Well, even on the highest settings, the transfer isn’t the best, plus you have to suffer through continual ad breaks. But it’s the dubbed edits that drive me craziest. It’s not that the English voice cast is bad – I think David “Solid Snake” Hayter does a fine job as Lupin, though I think Yasuo Yamada’s version is one of the most memorable performances in Japanese animation history. The real moment that gets me grinding my teeth is seeing how the splendid opening has been hacked away to fit in the English-language credits. The second I saw those still images slapped on top of the engrossing opening, I was ready to turn off my laptop immediately.
So, if you want the definitive version of Castle of Cagliostro (and live in North America), this recent Blu-ray release is your best bet. The Eastern Star/Discotek production contains the 1992 and 2000 dubs, a brand new localization, the original storyboards, an historical commentary track, and most importantly, a beautiful HD transfer that puts the old DVD version to shame. It’s the best release of the film you’ll see outside of Japan, and for a pretty reasonable price to boot.
Rewatching the Blu-ray version of Cagliostro after seeing Hayao Miyazaki reflecting on his legacy gave me a whole new perspective on the long arc of his career, the many productions of Ghibli Studios, and the last decades of the entire animation medium. Whether it’s new to you, or an old favorite, now’s the best time to check out this and other underseen works of the man. As much as I hate to end on a trite saying, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and you’ll be ready to embrace every aspect of Hayao’s career once you know it has reached its end. And really, that kind of sentimentality is at least fitting with the themes Miyazaki sewed into much of his superlative work, even when following the exploits of a goofball thief like Lupin III.