The Castle of Cagliostro (DVD, 2000)

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[ANIME] Miyazaki's First Masterpiece And A Timeless Family Classic

Apr 23, 2002 (Updated Apr 25, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Colorful characters; great (but slightly outdated) animation; simple and pleasing plot

Cons:Nothing to be seriously noted

The Bottom Line: I felt a resurgence of tenderness for the innocence of family films like these. It’s an animated movie, not a cartoon, and the storyboards show a higher level of dedication.


‘Too big for my pockets.’

Says the thief Lupin as he’s strolling through the secret hidden treasure. He’s stolen a great deal of jewels, cash, and other prized winnings throughout his now-matured thieving career, but this time he’s stumbled onto something that he just has no interest in; something worth ten times more than all the possessions he's ever stolen, and yet something that a man like him had best back out of. Maybe that’s because beside him is a girl he met ten years ago, and though not realizing it, she asks the Inspector Zenigata, “What has he stolen?” and he responds softly, “He stole your heart.” You can’t blame a man, even a thief, for falling under the spell of love.

But even with the lovey-dovey elements, there’s more to the romance than kissing and living happily ever after. Lupin is a dedicated master thief, a loyal crook with gadgets tucked underneath his sleeves. She is a young princess, part of a bloodline of the royal Cagliostro family. With that in mind, the romance fizzles and spurts with whatever remaining spark is left. In the clichéd Disney tradition, he’s saving her from the clutches of an evil lord bent on marrying her within a span of days. He’s the typical daring prince breaking through the lines to save her in that isolated stone tower. He loves her, but only in the homesick sense of the word. Though probably more than that, she is only the treasure he’s always perpetually seeking, like any other. As the line goes, men will be men, boys will be boys, and thieves will always certainly be thieves.

Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Castle of Cagliostro” is an anime that wipes the fairy tale styling of any feature clean off and poses the remaining backdrop as a slapdash heist. There is an enormous castle fortress here that would make any budding Disney artist faint. This is no ordinary castle. It has security robot sentries that zap out hot laser, dizzying high up buttresses, tower hugging elevators, a treacherous inner working of a clocktower, complex aqueducts with water wheels, a retractable bridge, and even comes complete with trapdoors that dispose of any unwelcome guests into a mass grave. The characters aren’t charming princes. Instead one is a suave and rogue criminal and the other is his gruff bearded sidekick. Another main character is also introduced; she’s a well-to-do dressed blonde servant of the castle, and then later equips herself with grenades and a machine gun at the movie’s climax, even donning on camouflage that would make Rambo swear on love at first sight.

The movie placates itself as innocent, and with only some minor situations that would barely not be suitable for little kids, it’s still about as lovable as its two conmen. The plot is simple enough. After a well planned casino heist, the two partners in crime, Lupin the Third (voiced by Yasuo Yamada) and the gun-toting Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) make away with the loot. But to his surprise, Lupin discovers that the money they just robbed isn’t actual money at all. It’s counterfeit. Though not just any kind of faked bill, it is made by a legendary group that produces mass quantities of Grade-A counterfeit money a.k.a. “Goat bills.” While on to their next job, they run into a girl and upon saving her life, Lupin realizes that she’s Lady Clarisse of Cagliostro (Sumi Shimamoto), the girl who saved his life in his early days of thieving. After of a moment of loosing his consciousness, she’s taken captive by the evil Count Cagliostro (Taro Ishida) and held prisoner in an isolated tower until she is to wed the count. As luck would have it, the two thieves also suspect that the infamous Goat Bills are manufactured behind the castle walls, part of a mass conspiracy plaguing the worldwide economy since god knows when (tracing far beyond the days of Napoleon, too).

Joining forces in their fight to uncover the secret of Castle Cagliostro AND rescue the princess is a Zen-like swordsman named Goemon (Makio Inoue) who proves useful at fighting against the castle’s legion of masked ninjas that could be mistaken for mechanical gorillas. But even with the samurai expertise of Goemon and the marksmanship of Jigen –and his anti tank rifle- infiltrating the fortress is a difficult matter.

There is another problem to look after: the Inspector Zenigata from Interpol (Goro Naya). He’s an inspector from good ol’ Japan and has traveled far to arrive to the castle after hearing that Lupin is scheming to make an appearance. He’s the archetypical Japanese man, as Lupin puts it, that’s totally devoted to his work. Needless to say, his work is to make sure Lupin finds a new home safely behind bars. But even he is having some complications getting access behind the scenes. Being far from his district of Japan, the quasi-Europeans don’t take so kindly to nosey inspectors. One guard tells Zenigata, “We don’t need any of you Orientals…” Eventually, the dedicated inspector suspects trouble looming behind the walls and joins in on an investigation.

There is a naive sensualness to the film's virtues and unspoiledness. Just the fact that it's a lucious embodiment of fairy tale structure would pass it off as innocent enough. It's a family film, but not in the frolicking adoration of "My Neighbor Totoro," Miyazaki's other praised family gem. Guns are present, and at one moment our hero gets shot, but there is the knowledge that he can't die, it's an abiding rule. This is not "Akira" and instead uses some scenes of low-key violence in the style of Jackie Chan: weapons are props, and bad guys die simply because they deserved it. Our heroes smoke cigarettes, but only to stay in-character (where would the world be if movie criminals didn't smoke?). After a car chase, we see a woman face-down on the steering wheel. Is she dead? No, only the victim of a faint.

Miyazaki’s more recent animated masterpiece “Princess Mononoke” was more of a utilization of virtuoso hand drawn cels made to rival the explosion of most trendy CGI cartoons of today. It had imagination and as much sheer epic scope that could be crammed onto a crude storyboard. “The Castle of Cagliostro” is its doppelganger on a budget. The artwork is faithful to that of the ‘Punch Monkey’ manga (comics) that inspired the concept of Lupin and his gang into a Japanese franchise. Visually, there’s not as much to savor in part of the imagination showcased in Miyazaki’s other features; the lines are simple and the backdrops appear faded from more vivid colors. But outdated animation is beside the point. Unlike “Princess Mononoke,” this one is all about character, and a dash of comedic flare too confident to be unfunny. There is a footchase through the perils of giant operational gears and mechanical doo-dads, an amusing upward swim inside a waterfall, and a defiantly risky tread upward on a sloped rooftop. Jackie Chan would be jealous.

Adding to the charm of an already delightful movie is the differentiating bond between Inspector Zenigata and Lupin. The franchise of “Lupin The Third” has spawned three syndicated TV shows, several made-for-TV movies, and a number of feature films. It would be a safe assumption to guess that the poor inspector has been on Lupin’s tail for quite some time, jetlagging on numerous episodes. At one point, while on the lookout for Lupin and eying one of the watermills, he asks one of his men, “Where does the water come out of?” and then figures that his long time enemy might be trying to sneak in via waterway. In a haste and dropping his dinner, he makes a scramble for the exiting fountain, and wouldn’t you know it that Lupin IS trying to sneak in via waterway. While cooperating together underneath the castle in an ancient crypt, Lupin is so familiar with him that he calls him “Old Man.” These two jaded guys know each other too well, and the ironic spoiler of it all is that they’d rather not.

“The Castle of Cagliostro” is Miyazaki’s directorial debut, and although contributing to earlier works, it’s this one that stands out as one of his first golden opportunities. Wondrously simple plots and magically engineered characters owe their debt here. Even the awe of flying, a very common concept in his films, makes its appearance as a red and yellow autogyro. It’s an animated movie, not a cartoon, and the storyboards reveal a much higher level of dedication in relations to live action. Some of the madcap car chases and serine backdrops are a part of the art of getting the story told. There is even music sprinkled in several scenes used to accentuate the overall mood of comedy and drama, such as the solo number sung during the credits. Watching it, I felt a resurgence of tender love for the innocence of family films like these. It’s been called one of the great classics in anime, and it’s about as timeless and nostalgic as the final sentence Zenigata shouts, “Follow Lupin, to the ends of the earth!”

Recommend this product? Yes

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