Since viewing Hols: Prince of the Sun, I've been inspired to slowly go back through my collection of Studio Ghibli movies to see how Miyazaki and Takahata grew as artists. Before even getting to the Ghibli movies, however, I decided to re-watch Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), the first feature film that Hayao Miyazaki ever directed.
The Castle of Cagliostro came out over ten years after Hols: Prince of the Sun, so I'm actually skipping over a significant chunk of Miyazaki's development here. But, to provide a context, following Hols, Miyazaki had continued to hone his craft as an animator on a couple more Toei productions, including Puss 'n Boots (1969) and Animal Treasure Island (1971). After leaving Toei, he mostly worked in television together with Takahata on a number of series, including Future Boy Conan (1978), and three acclaimed adaptations of classic children's stories—Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976), and Anne of Green Gables (1979)—which aired as part of Nippon Animation's pioneering “World Masterpiece Theater” program on Sunday evenings. I've never seen any of this stuff, as it's all pretty obscure or unavailable in the US.
Americans may be slightly more familiar with Lupin III, originally a 1967 manga created by a guy writing under the name Monkey Punch. The Mad magazine-inspired comic followed the raunchy adventures of the world's greatest thief, Lupin, supposedly the grandson of French author Maurice Leblanc's gentleman thief character, Arsene Lupin, although Monkey Punch's work was completely unauthorized by the Leblanc estate.
In 1971, Lupin III was adapted into a 23-episode TV anime. This too has never been available in the US (although that is scheduled to change in June), so I've never seen it. But many Ghibli fans perhaps know that most of the episodes were directed by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. So, although Miyazaki did not create Lupin, he did have a history with and probably a certain feeling of proprietorship over the character when he later co-wrote and directed Castle of Cagliostro. By some accounts, this movie was the culmination, not only of Miyazaki's involvement with Lupin III, but of his entire body of work in animation up to that point.
Most people checking out Castle of Cagliostro today probably do so after hearing that it was Miyazaki's first movie, and so they approach it as though seeing his beginning. But, in another way, it may also have marked the ending to a chapter in his career. Certainly, Castle of Cagliostro is unique among Miyazaki's films.
It still looks and feels in many ways like a Ghibli movie. Miyazaki and his mentor Yasuo Otsuka handled the character designs, which are a little softer and gentler than some other interpretations of Lupin and his gang. Miyazaki also finds a way to insert an autogyro into the film, indulging his love of flight. And, like Miyazaki's later works, Castle of Cagliostro is a family-friendly crowd-pleaser. And yet, watching it, one gets the sense that there was, not necessarily a less mature director at work, but a younger, more optimistic man at the helm. What Castle of Cagliostro lacks that is common to Miyazaki's later works are the old man's preachiness and condescension.
Maybe it's because Lupin III was not his own creation, and so his authorial voice was limited by the original source material. Or maybe he just hadn't grown into such a pessimistic grump yet; Nausicaa (1984), although the proto-Ghibli work, actually came out after Miyazaki was already in his 40s. In any case, Castle of Cagliostro is, in my opinion, the most purely fun movie Miyazaki ever directed, feeling rather like an animated version of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It's a caper film that is high on adventure and light on logic. When Lupin and his buddy Jigen meet Princess Clarisse fleeing from men working for her husband-to-be, the villainous Count, it's up to the rascally yet chivalrous Lupin to sneak into the Count's castle and pull off, not a theft, but a rescue. Lupin's swordsman friend Goemon, femme fatale Fujiko, and nemesis Inspector Zenigata all get involved as well.
Yeah, the film experience probably loses a little if you're not already acquainted with these Lupin III regulars, but it's not as big a deal as you might think. Castle of Cagliostro was my introduction to Lupin III, but it didn't take me long to feel like I knew these characters. Their histories are only about as relevant as James Bond's is to most 007 movies; longtime fans will find more to appreciate, but the film is also self-contained, and the personalities are not overly complex. Nevertheless, this is, without a doubt, the most charismatic cast of characters Miyazaki ever had to work with (no kids!), and it's easy to see why Lupin III's popularity endures even apart from his involvement. Cowboy Bebop is largely just a futuristic Lupin III, coupled with a bunch of references to Western cinema.
There is an interesting tension here resulting from the intersection of Monkey Punch's characters, more madcap and roguish than any found in Miyazaki's Ghibli works, and the character of Clarisse, most likely Miyazaki's own creation, who seems a sort of prototype of the strong, independent female protagonists of his later films. The two seem like they should be a poor fit, as though they shouldn't be able to coexist in the same story without compromising one or both, which is arguably the case here, with some critics contending, on the one hand, that the Castle of Cagliostro Lupin has been emasculated from his original incarnation, while, on the other hand, Clarisse is disappointingly weak compared to later Miyazaki heroines. With Lupin starring in the gallant hero role, the gentle Clarisse is left somewhat as a damsel-in-distress character, rather subdued compared to Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke's San. But she is also virtuous with a latent inner strength, and, as Lupin's heroism steadily instills her with confidence in him, she gains confidence in herself as well, even saving Lupin's life on multiple occasions. Meanwhile, those acquainted with the Lupin character outside of Castle of Cagliostro might note that it is a departure for Lupin to play the gallant hero at all. Taking that into consideration, it may be that, as much as he inspires Clarisse, she likewise inspires him to become more than what he has been.
Since watching Castle of Cagliostro for the first time, I've seen a handful of episodes of the second Lupin III TV series (1977) (no Miyazaki episodes), and what struck me was how irreverent it was, and what bastards Lupin and his gang were, out only for money and themselves. Yet this was reportedly much truer to the source material, and also how the characters are usually portrayed. That the Castle of Cagliostro Lupin, actually anomalous, is so much tamer is usually chalked up by detractors to the fact that Miyazaki is more comfortable producing for children, and so he watered the character down for young audiences. Except that, within the movie, Lupin actually reflects disapprovingly upon his younger, more reckless, more money-driven self. This was not just a flashback; it was a reference to the Lupin of the TV series that Miyazaki had previously worked on. Yes, the Castle of Cagliostro Lupin was different from the Lupin that fans knew; he was older, maybe a little weary of the thief's life, as perhaps Miyazaki himself was growing weary of silly cartoon adventures. Maybe Miyazaki was, in a way, preparing to lay to rest the part of his life that Lupin represented, by depicting a Lupin now susceptible to being tamed by Clarisse, who embodied Miyazaki's new direction and values going forward (though mercifully no sign yet of his tiresome, heavy-handed environmental messages).
Again, none of this context is really necessary to enjoy the film just as a fun adventure—maybe the most effortless Miyazaki ever directed. But it did enhance my appreciation for Castle of Cagliostro as the sendoff to a more innocent chapter in Miyazaki's career. He never made another one quite like this.