Manga Video // 1979 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Geoffrey Miller (Retired) // August 29th, 2006
A mysterious castle, a beautiful girl, and a master thief -- what more could you want?
A Japanese institution for nearly 30 years, Lupin III has spanned voluminous amounts of manga, over 200 TV episodes, countless movies and specials, and more than a few video games. The action-comedy following the exploits of the titular thief as he travels the world committing daring robberies and evading capture by Inspector Zenigata, an Interpol detective obsessed with bringing Lupin to justice. The Castle of Cagliostro, the first feature film directed by the highly acclaimed Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), is Lupin III's finest moment, an absolutely brilliant, enthralling adventure that's not only an anime landmark, but a true classic regardless of genre.
Arsène Lupin III (grandson of the identically named star of Maurice Leblanc's famous stories), the world's greatest thief, and his partner in crime, Daisuke Jigen, have just pulled off a heist at a Monaco casino. Their haul? A whopping five billion dollars. There's just one problem: They're counterfeits, the famed "Goat bills" that are almost impossible to tell from the real thing. An interest in finding the source of the Goat bills leads them to the Duchy of Cagliostro, a small European country, but they're soon in for more trouble than they bargained for. When they see a girl in a car being chased by gangsters, they rush to save her. She's eventually captured and taken off in a boat, but not before dropping a strange ring. Lupin and Daisuke are intrigued by its unusual inscription and set off for the castle of Cagliostro to rescue the girl (in actuality a princess), find out who's behind the Goat bills, and learn the truth about the ring.
First things first: You needn't have any previous familiarity with Lupin III to enjoy The Castle of Cagliosto. It helps, of course, to know at least a little about the franchise's long history; there are a few parts that will make more sense if you do. But like almost everything in the universe of Lupin III, it is a standalone story with only Lupin and a handful of other recurring characters in common with any other entries in the series.
The Castle of Cagliostro is the rare animated film that plays to the strengths of its form without sacrificing its place within grander cinematic traditions. Its trick is to blend a fairly traditional (yet exceedingly clever) caper plot with hints of exaggerated Looney Tunes action. The end product is a film that transcends being a mere "cartoon," but never feels as though it would have been better off live-action.
Nothing illustrates the potency of this mixture more than the car chase near the beginning of Cagliostro. Lupin is behind the wheel in hot pursuit of Thompson-toting mobsters as Jigen tries to shoot out their tires. With his supercharged yellow Fiat 500, Lupin rides up a steep roadside cliff, taking a "shortcut" through a forest, then roaring back down the other side to take out the mobsters from behind. The scene could be done similarly in live-action, especially these days with the advances in computer-generated special effects, but no matter how real the illusion, it would look silly. Done with animation, however, it's not only thrilling but also comically joyful.
The pacing is brisk (but not rushed), whisking us from one situation to the next. Nearly every scenario -- from Lupin daringly scaling the castle walls, to an escape from ancient catacombs, to the tense climax in the castle's clock tower -- has been seen. There's never any question, either, of where the story is going; Lupin will triumph, of course. But rarely has this sort of thing been executed so well, infused with such a sense of life. Like the breezier popcorn films of Steven Spielberg (who has supposedly named Cagliostro one of the greatest adventure films of all time), it takes a boilerplate plate premise and makes art out of it.
Lupin is an instantly appealing character, an unerringly arrogant anti-hero who retains a certain amount of honor and virtue despite being an unrepentant criminal. He has a good sense of humor, often responding to dangerous situations with a sarcastic quip. He's also a lady-killer who can't resist the chance to seduce a beautiful woman. While he's rooted in common archetypes, his personality and style -- a mix of suave chivalry, madcap antics, and daring adventurousness -- is too original to be labeled a mere pastiche. You could put him right up with there with Sanjuro, Indiana Jones, or Spike Spiegal (who was very clearly modeled on Lupin).
The rest of the Lupin III regulars, however, don't get in much time: Daisuke fades to the background after the first half-hour, and Goemon and Fujiko only have a few scenes. Inspector Zenigata (actually called in by Lupin as a distraction) has the most screen time of them all, eventually coming around and realizing that there's something afoul in Cagliostro. Keeping closely focused on Lupin himself is ultimately a good thing; it keeps the story moving and avoids filler. It's also a plus for Lupin newbies who won't need to know much about these other characters, even if it might be slightly disappointing to long-time fans.
It is often said that The Castle of Cagliostro is not a "true" Miyazaki film, and there is certainly some evidence of this -- at least prima facie. It is his first attempt at directing a film, before Studio Ghibli even existed; he is also working within the confines of Lupin III, which he had no hand in creating. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth -- it is distinctly the work of Miyazaki, through and through. It may not have the narrative depth or gravity of his later films, but that's part of the fun. His fascination with flight is evident in the prominence of archaic flying machines like autogyros. The influence of European culture (Cagliostro is a country that is quintessentially Western Europe, even if it is fictional) filtered through a Japanese worldview is also another common Miyazaki theme that finds its way into the film. More than anything, his sense of rhythm and eye for carefully placed shots is what drives the film to greatness.
The technical level of the animation is incredible as well, especially considering the relatively primitive state of the anime industry in 1979. The detail, especially in the lush backgrounds, is astonishing; it's a massive jump over the crude and limited animation of almost all other anime at the time. There is an exaggerated sense of color and shadow, reminiscent of the classic Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons. Jigen's gunshots and Lupin's bomb light up the room when they fend off a gang of masked, clawed henchmen; in a later scene, Lupin steps out of the shadows into the pale moonlight to introduce himself to Princess Clarisse.
Manga Video's new transfer is beautiful and nearly flawless. The English dub is available in stereo and 5.1; additionally, there are mono audio tracks in Japanese, French, and Spanish. The acting in the dub is good, although there are a few questionable changes in the translation. (Some minor additional cursing seems out of place.) Of the extras, besides an interview with animation director Yasuo Ohtsuka, there's only one big one, but it's something special: a complete version of the movie told through Miyazaki's original storyboards. It's not exactly riveting to watch for more than a few minutes, but it's an incredible insight into his creative process.
The Castle of Cagliostro -- Special Edition comes one of those antiquated relics known as a double-side disc. The main movie is one side, and the bonus materials are on the other. I didn't even know they still made these things! It couldn't possibly cost much more to do a one-side double layer disc, could it?
It would be a disservice to refer to The Castle of Cagliostro as merely a "great anime film"; it's a great film, period. Miyazaki's masterful touch is in full force, and there are few characters as worthy as Lupin to receive it. Every element of Cagliostro is exceptional, but what's most stunning about it is how everything comes together to form such a seamless whole. It's a massively enjoyable ride from beginning to end. While this Special Edition is not perfect, a new transfer and some nice bonuses make it by far superior to the previous DVD release.
Highly recommended to just about everyone. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2006 Geoffrey Miller; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Complete Animatic: Storyboards with Feature Soundtrack
* Interview with Animation Director Yasuo Ohtsuka
* Photo Gallery
* Japanese Trailers
* Lupin III Encyclopedia (fan site)