Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro

If there's a film series where new directors get to cut their teeth, it's the Alien films. Ridley Scott, who recently directed the epic Gladiator, headed the first one, and was followed by the infamous (and admittedly impressive) James Cameron. David Fincher headed up the third installment before heading to the grim worlds of Seven and Fight Club. Although we haven't seen the latest brainchild of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who directed Alien Resurrection, it's clear that each director had a unique vision they brought to the characters and setting of the Alien universe. Hayao Miyazaki was in very much the same kind of position when he directed his first feature film, Lupin III: The Castle Of Cagliostro. The Lupin characters were firmly established (much as the characters in the Alien films were), and the Lupin series was a place where a lot of animators got their first start. Miyazaki, however, had the daunting task of bringing these well-loved characters to the big screen. He did so masterfully, and Cagliostro is recognized as one of the best anime films ever created. It also was a catalyst for Miyazaki, who has gone on to become Japan's foremost animator. Critically, from my perspective, Cagliostro is not necessarily the perfect Lupin adventure, but it is a wonderful, enchanting ride.

Cagliostro opens with Lupin and his bearded friend Jigen finishing off a master heist, unloading a casino of a true carfull of loot. Turns out that our antiheros have been duped, however--they have picked up a bunch of perfect counterfeit bills. Lupin recognizes the source of the dough, which is none other than a small country somewhere in Europe known as the Duchy of Cagliostro. On their way to check out the counterfeiting business, they wind up in a huge car chase as they help a mysterious young woman, Clarisse, escape from some nasty henchmen. As the story unfolds, we see Lupin and his friends try to thwart the sinister plans of Count Cagliostro, who plans to marry Clarisse to get access to the hidden treasure his ancestors left behind long ago.

What is so striking about Cagliostro is that it is a beautiful film made in a time when subdued colors and muted tones were found in many anime. It is so vibrant, especially on DVD, that it's a special joy to watch. What's more, the pacing is superb, and the plot is smart without getting convoluted. It also is a great showcase for Miyazaki's passions. For example, while the rest of the Lupin characters have their own look and feel, Clarisse is by all means a Miyazaki creation, with a look and feel of heroines such as Nausicaa. There's also the love of flying vehicles, as seen in the autogyro that becomes important during the final act. You can see the Miyazaki of such wonders as Totoro and Mononoke cutting his teeth here.

Miyazaki's sense of wonder pervades the entire production, helping it achieve a level that no other Lupin adventure has really achieved--except perhaps for the two television episodes of Lupin III that Miyazaki directed a few years after Cagliostro. I will say that the one flaw that I see in the movie is not a film issue at all, but the handling of a minor character. Goemon, the stoic sword-wielding friend of Lupin, is one of my favorite characters in the series, but he receives short shrift in the film. On one hand, that has always disappointed me. On the other hand, though, it's a key to Cagliostro's success--there is very little fat in the film, and minor characters aren't given much to do. Considering how little he does, it's amazing Goemon even made it into the film at all! However, the interaction between Lupin and Zenigata, the inspector whose life goal is to apprehend Lupin and bring him to justice, makes up for this failing. Cagliostro brings some personality and depth to Zenigata's character, and that's quite welcome.

There's really nothing more to say about The Castle Of Cagliostro, except that it should become a part of your collection, especially if you own a DVD player. The new transfer has some minor flaws (reel markers and the like), but you're likely not to find a more beautiful looking copy of the film again. It's a classic that every anime fan should see and own.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro -- mild violence and language -- A