director Hayao Miyazaki
Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film that he directed and co-wrote, 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro, is probably pretty obscure to American audiences. This film was an adaptation of a popular manga by Monkey Punch, featuring the character of Lupin III, a bon vivant thief and heroic anti-hero. So, though Miyazaki worked on the film as co-writer and storyboarder, this is the one major case of him directing a film of someone else’s material. Anomalous as it is in that way, it’s still very much a Miyazaki film.
My personal relationship with the film is rather odd. I first saw it on VHS probably in the early 1990’s, around the time perhaps that I was getting to know who Hayao Miyazaki was. But when I sat down to watch the movie, I was suddenly sparked to realize that I had encountered it before. In the form of a video game.
I’m no historian on video games, though I certainly came of age in their golden era. In one arcade in my hometown, Tin Pan Alley, the video game of The Castle of Cagliostro stood out. Like the more notable and popular Dragon’s Lair video game, it featured not low-res arcade action but actual animated clips. You had to make the right moves at the right times, but the experience was cel animated action.
Dragon’s Lair had gotten some press because it had been done by former Disney employee Don Bluth (who would go on to a number of Disney-like features). And while the characters were all original, it had that Disney-vibe. And frankly, there was nothing else like it. It was utterly unique.
Except The Castle of Cagliostro. Which with no fanfare or knowledge that it came from a film, was a clearly Japanese animated video game of the same ilk as Dragon’s Lair. I thought it was cool and played it a bit but I never got very good at it. And this style of video game never really caught on but became its own obscure footnote of its time.
So, there I was, sitting at home, watching the beginning sequence of the film The Castle of Cagliostro, realizing that this was the exact same thing I had encountered a decade before. I thought to myself, “I used to die here. And here. And here. And here.” Only you don’t see the little death scenes. And I never made it far enough in the game to have that weird experience very far into the movie.
Well, another two decades later, I am watching the film with my kids. And for that recollection of the video game memory, I actually felt that a lot less this time through. It’s been 30 years since I played the game. But some of the images still struck me. The grenades dropped at Lupin’s car and the car veering on the cliff road and those weird long-armed henchmen.
The film is very distinctly a Miyazaki one in a few ways, though perhaps most notably in the conception of the landscape and the world of Cagliostro, which is his own fantastical vision of Europe. The design of the women and the lead villain also are uniquely Miyazakian (if you will). The least Miyazakian element is Lupin himself, a pronounced character with facial expressions you won’t find in any other Miyazaki film. Not bad or anything, just not typical of Miyazaki. That flying machine on the other hand…that is pure Miyazaki.
At the film’s best it’s excellent. The animation is a bit rougher in some ways than any of his other films, but only by small degrees. It’s beautifully rendered and has some remarkable sequences of action and adventure, including the car chase, Lupin’s leaping from rooftop to rooftop, chasing around in the inner workings of the clock tower. It’s excellent stuff. As honestly, all Miyazaki stuff is.
And the kids enjoyed it. It’s safe to say that they like (or love) all Miyazaki films too.