Wednesday 23 July 2008

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Six years before founding Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, who has to be the most consistent director in the history of film, directed his debut film, a feature length accompaniment to the Lupin III anime series on TV. This is 1979 so the film certainly looks dated but it's full of character, and there are elements that remind of later Miyazaki work like the autogyro and some of the equipment designs. While there are certainly some of the short loops that are characteristic of TV work, they're fewer than I expected and the backgrounds are more detailed. In short for a 30 year old anime feature, it looks very good indeed.

Lupin III is the star. He's really Arsene Lupin III, the grandson of the great French thief Arsene Lupin, as hijacked by the Japanese and turned into an industry. After first appearing in a manga by the artist Monkey Punch, he's appeared in no end of manga, TV episodes, OVAs, feature films and TV specials, games, you name it. In fact there's been a 90 minute TV special every year since 1989, which makes twenty so far. That's a lot to catch up with, but the Lupin III feature directed by Miyazaki can't be a bad place to start. On the cover of my Manga Entertainment special edition DVD, no less a name than Steven Spielberg describes it as 'one of the greatest adventure movies of all time' and it certainly has as many cliffhangers as an Indiana Jones film.

After a brief introduction in which Lupin and Jugin, his partner in crime, successfully steal five billion from a Monaco casino vault, only to discover that they're all counterfeit, the pair hightail it over to the Duchy of Cagliostro, the smallest sovereign state in Europe and apparently the source of the goat bills, as Lupin refers to them. However before they can investigate, they get caught up in a mystery. On a cliff road, a young lady in a wedding dress and a small car is being chased by suspicious characters in a much bigger car and Lupin has to get right into the middle of it.

He rescues her from the bad guys, at least for a short moment. She leaves him at the bottom of a cliff knocked out by a falling branch only to be captured by the bad guys again. At least she leaves him with a glove that contains a ring, and the ring is the key to the mystery. The evil regent, Count Cagliostro by name, is plotting to marry the daughter of the Grand Duke and Duchess, who were killed seven years earlier when their palace was burned to the ground. Each is from one of the ancient houses of Cagoliostro, and there's an equally ancient legend about how some hidden treasure will appear when the two houses are united. The secret is in their rings and they carry one each.

Needless to say Lupin wants in for a whole host of reasons. He's a thief by trade so treasure is always a magnet. He's interested in the counterfeiting for professional reasons. There's a princess to rescue, Lady Clarisse, and he's as much of a womaniser as he is a thief. And apparently there's a history here too: he's been here before, a decade earlier, and so knows a little bit about what's going on and who the main players in the game are. What makes him so fascinating is that beyond being a great antihero, he's a combination of a number of characters, some of whom hadn't even been created in 1979.

According to Wikipedia, Rob Lineberger of DVD Verdict described Lupin III as 'James Bond meets Charlie's Angels with Scooby Doo sensibilities.' There's certainly plenty of all of those, but there's a lot of Indiana Jones too. The gadgets are Bond but the cliffhanging is more Indy, especially when we see him read some dead language called Capran inscribed on the rings. He doesn't look like Indy though, he looks more like a rather well dressed chimp. He even gets to do a few of those unrealistic over the top stunts that plagued the last Indy film. He has plenty of depth as a character though, thus explaining much of his abiding popularity in Japan. We enjoy the stunts and the antics, but it's Lupin himself that keeps us fascinated.

He's far from the only regular character. I've seen the odd episode of the series but none of the other films and don't have much background to the characters, but Jigen is not the only name that fans would recognise. There's a renegade samurai called Goemon who gets very little to do here; an on again, off again girlfriend and rival called Fujiko, who plays whichever side gets her a better deal; and there's Inspector Zenigata of Interpol, Lupin's nemesis. Like Lupin himself, they're all characters that invite further attention and I'll definitely have to find some more of the films, even if they're not likely to be up to the standards of this one. This must be Miyazaki's worst film and yet its notably better than most people's best.

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