When it’s on: Wednesday, 5 August (3.05 pm)
Like many people, I first got into Anime after watching Spirited Away in 2002. I was 30 and it was sort of a kids’ film, but the animation was so gorgeous and the story so universal that it didn’t matter. I instantly started hunting down other films, discovering a vast library of titles, the cream directed by Spirited Away’s Hayao Miyazaki but with a string of utterly worthy releases from others within the studio. That widened into a brief flirtation with TV series and even Manga books, the massive back catalogue of offerings churned out in Japan and more widely available in this country, also the realisation that many animated shows I’d enjoyed as a child had in fact been made first for Japanese audiences.
My obsession has diminished over the years, boxsets of classics like Akira and Ninja Scroll on the shelf and dusted off for an occasional watch, but still DVDs featuring Miyazaki’s name remain regular staples in this house. The Castle of Cagliostro, his first cinematic release, is an incredibly entertaining piece of work, channelling the spirit of swashbucklers coupled with the antics of Tintin and James Bond. It’s a little rougher than later offerings. Miyazaki’s staples of woodland spirits and environmental friendly messages – prevalent within an industrialised country that nevertheless uses the natural world in a unique and special way – clearly came later. The Castle of Cagliostro aims to be nothing more than a fun adventure yarn, and in that sense ticks all the right boxes.
The film’s central character, master thief Arsene Lupin III, was no stranger to Japanese audiences when he took the starring role here. Featuring in Manga regularly since 1967, his capers had also been made into a television series and a movie before Miyazaki took over for this 1979 release. Together with his henchman, the chain smoking marksman Jigen, fedora always covering his eyes, Lupin was a well known figure but his character was modified to fit the story. Less apathetic, his trademark leeriness reduced to good-natured cheek, Lupin was remodelled to fit the confines of a film aimed at family audiences, Miyazaki crafting a world of singular European beauty in which the story to take place. When you see Cagliostro you think of San Marino or Monaco, a tiny yet significant principality with years of history behind it and little more than a grand palace to fit within its borders.
The villainous Count is set on arranging a marriage between himself and the winsome Princess Clarisse. He has little interesting in uniting their houses, more in cementing his power in the region and using her to unlock Cagliostro’s largest secret, a fabled ancient treasure trove. Nothing seems to stand in his way, nothing that is apart from the intrepid Lupin and an ingenious mind and array of devices that keep him one step ahead. The story becomes a race over who captures Clarisse – the Count and his army of sinister minions, or Lupin and the intervention of his plucky friends. There’s also the little matter of uncovering the source of the Count’s personal fortune, a vast printing press that’s used to run of countless counterfeit banknotes in all denominations. In finding this, Lupin enlists the most unlikely ally, his own dogged pursuer Inspector Koichi Zenagata, who’s been after the thief for years.
It’s good fun, Lupin coming across and foiling a series of traps, falling into others that lead him into the depths of the labyrinthine castle and stumbling across skeletons of medieval burrowers from years ago. There are breathless chases over the rooftops, through waterways and secret passages, Lupin normally – not always – coming out on top yet remaining determined to win the day. The character comes with a nice singularity of purpose, at odds with his credentials as a modern Robin Hood (without the ‘giving to the poor’ part, in fairness) and making clear a history between himself and the Princess that is teased out over the course of the film.
No doubt about it, Miyazaki’s made better films. The Castle of Cagliostro isn’t a patch on his various paeans to childhood, the pastoral wonders of My Neighbour Totoro, the coming of age story presented in Kiki’s Delivery Service, for me culminating in the towering brilliance of Spirited Away. Those three films didn’t really have villains and focused more on the indefatigability of lead characters learning life lessons as they grew up. In contrast, this is a straightforward adventure caper, which should appeal greatly to fans of Tintin; the little journalist often ended up in similar scrapes as he searched for buried treasures and secrets. The artwork isn’t as sublime as it would become in later years, but the scope is already present and correct, the castle at once imposing and beautifully splendid, the animation smooth and packed with character. It’s a fine introduction to one of the world’s great animators, and in its own right makes for 100 minutes of laughs and action, featuring a winning lead who remains the focus of attempts to keep him on the screen, more than 35 years down the line.
The Castle of Cagliostro: ****