Castle Of Cagliostro

cagliostroMiyazaki’s Lupin is not Lupin – that is, not as he was created in the first place. Lupin, the brainchild of manga artist Monkey Punch, is a follow-up (unlicensed) to the novels of Maurice LeBlanc, which star the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin. Monkey Punch’s Lupin is the thief’s grandson, but he’s no gentleman. He’s a lech and a rat, and he’s violent.

So when Miyazaki turns him into an out-and-out hero (who’s still a thief), does it work? Castle Of Cagliostro was not Miyazaki’s first turn at Lupin. With Isao Takahata, he directed the first Lupin TV series in 1971, and a few episodes (including the finale) of a second Lupin series in 1980. However, the Lupin in Cagliostro is not the Lupin Monkey Punch envisioned. (Reportedly, the manga artist was none too pleased with Miyazaki’s reinvention.)

Still, it depends on your feelings about the importance of original authorship versus quality. If something doesn’t live up to its original intent, are we to say that any positive elements extant are derived of the same merit as something that works on its own terms?

Sure, why not? Because, unless you have someone breathing down your neck, (arguing about how Cagliostro would be so much better if Lupin were allowed the full flower of his antisocial behavior), all we have to go on is the film itself. And, as pure adventure, Cagliostro has few equals, live or animated.

We open on the aftermath of a wildly successful casino robbery: Lupin and Jigen (his constant partner) are running from the police only to find that the bills in Lupin’s fiat are forgeries. None too shaken, Lupin decides that their next caper is to find the source of these forgeries (so-called “goat bills,” which are the stuff of legend. Lupin can detect them at a glance).

The two of them go to the small duchy of Cagliostro, where, after an exhilarating car chase, they get wrapped up in a scheme to save a princess from marrying a monstrous Count. The Count has many ninjas at his disposal, flies an auto-gyro, and shows no patience for his fiancee’s pluck.

Each grain common to the more typical Miyazaki fare (gentle-girls-make-good fantasy, or eco-terror parable) is here. There’s plenty of female resourcefulness. See Clarisse, our princess, bashing away at bulletproof glass to escape from the Count’s tower. Technical attention to detail abounds, from the precise models of existing cars to the gears of a clock tower that form the setting of the final sequence. Miyazaki has been animating and directing since 1963, and he was 40 years old when he made Cagliostro. That certain themes and elements known to his work should pop up here is no surprise.

Manifest, too, is Miyazaki’s mastery of tone and timing. In a frenetic medium, he is the most patient of directors, taking the time to stage action for impact. While there are none of the distinctive silent moments that mark his other films, Cagliostro does allow for plot points and gags. Look at Lupin’s long ascent to the top of the tower — the careful set-up for the rocket zip-line, and how slow, meticulous planning devolves into a long-running jump.

What is most surprising in Cagliostro is the Count. Later films make clear Miyazaki’s apparent lack of comfort with the concepts of good and evil (at least in the narrative manner in which they appear, as dualities and diametric oppositions1). The Count is not wholly one-dimensional (family history motivates his apparently heartless conquest of Clarisse. However, he killed her parents, which makes any defense of the man thin broth), but he is irredeemable. No soft side exists — nothing, ordinarily, that makes Miyazaki’s work so approachable: that there is, somewhere in humanity’s heart, an essential goodness.

So Lupin, the story of a gentleman thief and his team of misfits, is a story of black & white good-and-bad. And…who cares. It’s funny, it’s paced, and it’s got enough Euro-thriller cheese (Seventies-style) to entertain even the cynical.

Miyazaki was great from the beginning.

1Even parts of his work that are predicated (we think) on moral rubrics are based, arguably, on a value system that precludes human supremacy and falls short of the good-and-bad scale, since it lives outside of humanity’s ken. The environmental aspects of Nausicaa are an example of this.

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