(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. For the month of May, we’re taking a deep dive into the lively, humanist wonders of one of animation’s greatest voices, Hayao Miyazaki.)
You can tell a Miyazaki movie from moment one – the bright, summery landscapes, the rounded, intriguing character designs, the impeccable sense of geography and architecture that goes into every frame. Much of the time, particularly in his work with Studio Ghibli (which we’ll take on later in the month), that visual invention is put to intriguing subtextual ends – Mononoke exploring man’s relationship to nature, Spirited Away our understanding of death, and so on. But sometimes you just need some well-constructed comfort food, some light-hearted swashbuckling to cleanse the palette. With The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki cut his teeth doing just that, making it one of the greatest anime adventures of all time.
Adapted from Monkey Punch’s popular mange series Lipin III (episodes of the anime version Miyazaki had directed prior to this), The Castle of Cagliostro follows dashing gentleman-thief Arsene Lupin III, who rides into the fictional country of Cagliostro to track down the source of high-quality counterfeit money that’s flooding into the global market. (Naturally, he discovers this scheme after stealing a bunch of it from a casino in the film’s opening minutes). From there, he and his sidekicks, the chain-smoking Jigen and stoic samurai Goemon, uncover a plot by the dastardly Count Cagliostro to force marriage onto the demure Lady Clarisse, thus ensuring his access to the true treasure of Cagliostro, whatever that might be.
Despite it being Miyazaki’s first feature-length film, Cagliostro is as assured as any of the director’s other output. So many of the filmmakers’ stylistic signposts are there, from the vividness of its vaguely-European setting to the meticulous staging of its high-speed action sequences.
It’s rumored that Steven Spielberg took inspiration for this film for the complicated escapades of the Indiana Jones films, and you can see why: from top to bottom, Cagliostro moves like clockwork, Miyazaki and co-writer Hayura Yamazaki throwing their impishly clever protagonist into one impossible situation after another, forcing him to overcome it with his wits, gadgets, and the help of three or four incredibly-competent sidekicks. It’s hard not to look at the film’s first big setpiece, a high-speed car chase down winding mountain roads to save Clarisse from Cagliostro’s goons, and not think of some of the best capers Raiders of the Lost Ark had to offer.
This is also the first (and only) time Miyazaki ever worked from pre-existing material, though he took great pains to change the manga’s central character in a way befitting the filmmaker’s more upbeat, idealistic ideas of heroism. The Lupin of the manga and anime is a more openly unscrupulous figure; he’s a lecherous cheat who drives a Mercedes-Benz because it was “Hitler’s favorite” car.