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Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro
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by Jay Seaver

"Both an impressive first feature and a solid franchise entry."
4 stars

"The Castle of Cagliostro" is often marketed in the United States without highlighting how it is part of an ongoing series of comic-inspired productions that first appeared on Japanese television in 1971 and has been in almost continual production in one form or another since. It is, after all, Hayao Miyazaki's first feature, and as such fits a certain part of a familiar narrative: The work-for-hire thing he did before being able to start his own studio that nevertheless shows glimpses of his true talent. It turns out to be a rare case of the movie that satisfies both a franchise's fanbase and an artist's, a familiar adventure that benefits from having someone as great as Miyazaki working on it.

It opens with master thief Arsène Lupin III and his partner Daisuke Jigen stealing fifty million dollars from a European casino, only to discover that the money is all counterfeit. These "Gothic Notes" come from the small principality of Cagliostro, called a black hole as those who attempt to investigate the source tend to disappear. No sooner have they crossed the border, though, than they have another problem - a runaway bride being chased by secret-police types, whom they soon learn is Lady Clarisse, recently returned from a convent and expected to marry the regent, who believes she holds the key to a massive treasure. Lupin and Jigen send for frequent partner Goemon Ishikawa and also make sure that Interpol detective Koichi Zenigata follows them; it turns out that rival Fujiko Mine is already undercover in the castle as Clarisse's keeper - and that Lupin may have reasons beyond pure random chivalry to get involved.

The story is more than a bit messy, in the way that is often the case with movies that are spun off from ongoing series are, half Lupin inserting himself into someone else's problem and half already part of it, before you get to there only being so many ways to bring Goemon, Fujiko, and Zenigata into the story or make Clarisse an active part of it. It doesn't matter that much, though; Miyazaki and co-writer Haruya Yamazaki do nice work of keeping everything moving in the moment, establishing high stakes but using cartoony devices from impossible car chases to a Wile E. Coyote-eque pause before falling down a trap to mostly keep things light and moving quickly.

And though much of the visual style may be derived from the original Monkey Punch manga and previous TV series, Miyazaki was a director on that show, and it's easy to see how its look would influence his own, with the baroque armored henchmen, or how the titular castle has a classic storybook look but all sorts of retro-futuristic and Saturday-serial elements. He's good at visually coding things so that the gangly figures of folks like Lupin mark him as a scrappy underdog in relation to the Count's bulk without them looking like they're separate species as so often seems to be the case. Even for 1979, this doesn't look like an expensive animated movie, but Miyazaki clearly knows his tools well enough even at this early stage to get the most from them.

That's especially noteworthy when Lupin and company leap into action. Animation at this time was a medium where the technology often encouraged static, planar visuals with tricks to suggest speed and depth, but Miyazaki and his crew will have his characters circle each other and dash through a scene that doesn't just feel like a painted backdrop. Characters move and interact in a way that feels solid and fluid the way well-staged live-action does, but it never just feels like the filmmakers are imitating that, working with both the art form's limitations and special abilities to create something that feels both tangible and fantastic, making what's on screen exciting.

Miyazaki would go on to create grander animated features with loftier storytelling ambitions, and but for a hiatus in the early 1980s, TMS would keep producing "Lupin III" adventures for television and theaters every year, steadily evolving while remaining true to the original style despite recent forays into live-action and CGI. It's worked out pretty well for both, and it's impressive just how well this relatively early intersection still holds up.

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originally posted: 10/21/20 12:24:44
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