Have you ever wondered what you’d get if you asked Walt Disney to make a James Bond film? Well, wonder no more.
The Castle of Cagliostro centres on Lupin the Third, a gentleman thief inspired in equal part by Bond and fictional French burglar Arsène Lupin. It’s fair to say that, in retrospect, the ever-whimsical Miyazaki – best known for fairytales such as My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away and often referred to as the “Japanese Walt Disney” – is an odd fit for director of a film about Lupin’s antics. After all, “the Wolf” is if anything less family friendly than Mr Bond, his mischievous charisma barely masking his lecherous antics in the majority of his animated incarnations, which tend towards mean-spiritedness (and this is without mentioning the invariably leering depictions of female rival Fujiko).
Now, to be fair, Miyazaki – along with Studio Ghibli stablemate Isao Takahata – directed a good chunk of Lupin the Third Part 1, the first television series to star the thief back in the early ‘70s. I haven’t seen those episodes, and it’s entirely possible that Miyazaki embraced the seventies sleaze for television. Whatever the history, his approach to Lupin come 1979 was in stark contrast to most iterations of the character. Where the majority of Miyazaki’s films use a twee exterior to examine darker themes like illness (My Neighbour Totoro) or war (The Wind Rises), here we have the opposite: a film about a violent criminal with a core of pure goodness.
When Pierce Brosnan was announced as the next Bond in the 1990s, the barometer of cultural criticism MAD Magazine produced a cartoon titled If James Bond were “Updated” for the Politically-Correct ‘90s which imagined Brosnan’s Bond as a ponce who had to nerve to – gasp! – request consent before ravishing his so-called ‘Bond girl.’ Miyazaki takes things a step further with The Castle of Cagliostro, which is absent eroticism altogether. Like most Bond movies, the story features a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (or, at least, ‘less good’) Bond girl; unlike most Bond movies, our hero sleeps with neither – there’s not even a chaste kiss.
The ‘bad’ girl of the piece, Lupin’s perennial rival/ally Fujiko, is relatively incidental to the narrative so this isn’t especially surprising (though it’s rare, in the context of Lupin the Third, for her to be presented without overt sexualisation/nudity). Miyazaki goes out of his way to emphasise the innocence of the bond between Lupin and Clarisse, the young damsel-in-distress of the piece. Clarisse sets the narrative in motion when Lupin and sidekick Jigen encounter her fleeing from her scheduled wedding with the villainous Count Cagliostro, and she ultimately falls head-over-heels for Lupin’s persistent heroism. However, Lupin rebuffs her affections, and later recounts a story of how she cared for him as an infant. Lupin isn’t a scoundrel motivated by fleeting lust, but an honourable Disney-ified do-gooder who seems only peripherally interested in the prospect of stealing Cagliostro’s treasure, as is his supposed motivation.
Miyazaki, released this film, his feature debut, prior to the existence of Studio Ghibli. Nonetheless it arrives as a Blu-Ray on Australian shores alongside a host of great Ghibli releases from Madman Entertainment (including documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises, a Blu-Ray release of Grave of the Fireflies and some spectacular limited edition releases). And it feels of a piece with the majority of his subsequent Ghibli filmography, thanks to this sheen of innocence. While the disconnect between the Lupin’s character and the director’s preferences prevent the film from living up to Miyazaki’s best work, it remains a lot of fun throughout.
It also, significantly, looks fantastic. The production was reportedly rushed; admittedly, The Castle of Cagliostro lacks the immaculate beauty of Miyazaki’s later works. But the fluidity of the animation is a sight to behold. I remember watching and rewatching an anime music video (yes, really) that prominently featured animation from this film – before I could easily access the film itself – because it was just so damn gorgeous. The way Miyazaki’s characters move is stunning, like an idealized version of how we move, sped up and smoothed out. It’s intoxicating, and gives a tantalising preview of the greatness Miyazaki would go on to create.