Everything influences everything else. Movies ripple out in ways often impossible to chart. On the face of it, the Japanese animation Castle of Cagliostro is a swashbuckling adventure of trap-laden castles, daring heroes, and damsels in distress. But it is not an exaggeration to say that this relatively unknown movie (except for Anime enthusiasts) is hugely influential, even now.
Castle of Cagliostro is the second feature-length movie starring suave thief, Arsène Lupin III. However, it is notable for being the debut feature from acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki who, in the decades since Cagliostro’s release, has inarguably changed the face of animated movie-making. Miyazaki was no stranger to Lupin, having directed several episodes of TV series starring the character, but you can spy many of his later trademarks in this rollicking adventure tale.
Under Miyazaki’s hand, Lupin’s personality is softened from ruthless criminal with an unpleasant attitude towards woman, to cheeky chap who cackles at the situations he finds himself in but yet swoops in to rescue the girl. As the movie opens he is escaping with a car full of stolen cash robbed from a Monte Carlo casino but he and equally well-coiffed pal Jigen discover the notes are counterfeit.
Not only that, they were made in the tiny country of Cagliostro where rumors of high-quality fakes are only topped by the unexplained disappearances of anyone who seeks the source. On the way, they help a bride who is fleeing a squad of goons and get caught up in conspiracies along the way.
The aesthetic of Castle of Cagliostro is very much Bond-lite. It starts with little time spent on introductions, instead confident that the European setting and 50s / 60s well-dressed gangster clothes will make you immediately comfortable. Further stylistic western comparison can be drawn from The Avengers (the British 60s series, not the Marvel movies) and cult favourite The Prisoner. It’s a time when swagger and nefarious gadgets aided charming crooks. How will he get out of this scrape? Why, a hand-propelled rocket carrying a grappling hook of course!
Animation wise the movie has definitely dated. The cast of characters bend and contort unrealistically and movements often have simple frames that lack detail. Lupin’s efforts to rescue the literal princess in the tower, such as climbing sheer walls or leaping the chasm from one castle roof to the next, bends believability until it snaps in two. But Miyazaki’s love of pan-European cityscapes is evident here as the detail lacking in the characters is more than made up with the architecture and machinery. When Lupin zooms down cobbled streets either on foot or in his little Fiat 500 there is much fun to be had in watching the world as it thunders past.
Whilst Lupin himself is full of charisma the movie is at its best when he has cohorts to bounce off and so the mid-section of the movie sags around his shoulders. By himself, Lupin’s unwavering cockiness can get tiresome. Unfortunately, our lady in waiting of a rescue, Clarisse, is just that: a two-dimensional woman who is entirely at the mercy of the men around her. She is buffeted between Lupin and the Count – a mustache-twirling villain straight out of a trope handbook. Miyazaki would make amends later by going on to populate his movies with plenty of strong and complex leading ladies (as well as many-layered ‘non-villain’ antagonists) but here we are dealing with ‘what you see is what you get’ simplicity.
The Castle of Cagliostro is plenty of fun. It buckles its swash and is a lovely cartoon adventure. You can draw a line from this to identify early traits that would show up again through Miyazaki’s critically acclaimed career in movies such as My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Howls’ Moving Castle and Ponyo.
But Pixar’s John Lasseter has also gone on record to say that this movie (and Miyazaki’s generally) inspired him greatly so Toy Story owes a debt of gratitude to Cagliostro’s trailblazing for animation. As all of Miyazaki’s other movies are tied up with Film Four licensing, grab a view of Castle of Cagliostro on Netflix whilst you can.
Words by Michael Record