The legend of Japanese animator, artist and storyteller Hayao Miyazaki is such that you’d be hard pressed to think of an aspect of his filmmaking that hasn’t already been singled out for praise. His brilliance as a draughtsman and a creator of unforgettable characters is globally recognised. His ability to wrap beauty, melancholy and complex themes together in universally enjoyable films is regularly discussed.
But if there’s one thing that isn’t often mentioned about Miyazaki, it’s that he’s exceptionally good at dreaming up and directing action sequences. For evidence of this, just look at the extraordinary battle scenes in 1984’s Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, the success of which led to the founding of Studio Ghibli the following year. Check out the breathtaking aerial skirmishes and wholesale robot destruction in 1986’s Laputa: Castle In The Sky; the similarly spectacular dogfights of Porco Rosso (1992), or the fantastical monster fights of Princess Mononoke (1997).
So wrapped up in a sense of childlike wonder are Miyazaki’s films, it’s easy to overlook how adept he is at injecting even his more gentle output with moments of tension or excitement. Even the whimsical My Neighbor Totoro or Ponyo contain individual scenes that quicken the pulse – look at the spectacular tsunami escape sequence in the latter as a recent example.
Miyazaki’s first feature, The Castle Of Cagliostro, is arguably the most action-packed film in his career to date. First released in Japanese cinemas in 1979, it’s a wild adventure movie in the classic Hollywood mould, full of romance, villainy, stunts and cliff-hanging moments. Although displaying some of the hard edge and gunplay of the hit manga and anime series on which it’s based, it also bears all the hallmarks of a classic Miyazaki production – beautifully wrought scenery, a loving depiction of cars and planes, strong female characters, and a playful sense of humour.
Although The Castle Of Cagliostro is a spin-off from the Lupin III manga and anime (itself an unauthorised update of characters created by French author Maurice Leblanc), knowledge of its characters and history isn’t required to enjoy it - everything we need to know about Arsene Lupin the Third is summed up in a relentlessly fast-paced opening sequence.
Lupin and his partner-in-crime Jigen are a pair of expert thieves, and they’ve just robbed a Monaco casino of its ready cash. As they make their escape in a Fiat 500 – possibly one of the most impractical getaway cars in film history – Lupin realises that their haul of money is counterfeit, and so expertly faked that it can only come from one place: Cagliostro, a tiny independent European state whose Count is a master forger.
Lupin and Jigen drive to Cagliostro to locate the fake money’s source, only to fall headlong into another high-speed pursuit. This time, it involves a carload of gangsters, who are on the tail of a fleeing young woman on a mountain road. Never passing up the opportunity to help a damsel in distress, Lupin uses his driving skills to total the gangsters’ vehicle and help the woman escape.
This young woman, it turns out, is Clarisse, a princess whom the Count wants to marry in order to get his hands on Cagliostro’s ancient hidden treasure. Lupin’s mixture of greed, gallantry and plain nosiness soon sees he and Jigen embroiled in the Count’s evil plans, and matters are complicated even further when the thieves’ nemesis, Inspector Zenigata, shows up to arrest them.
This, of course, is only a very brief sketch of The Castle Of Cagliostro‘s events. What unfolds is an adventure of a purity and breadth that Steven Spielberg would later bring to the screen in his Indiana Jones movies and recent Tintin adaptation. It’s said that Spielberg much admired Cagliostro, and some DVD releases of the movie even carried a quote from the director saying, “One of the greatest adventure movies of all time”.
While the origins of this quote have never been verified, the sentiment behind it is undoubtedly true: The Castle Of Cagliostro is one of the most straightforwardly entertaining animated movies ever made. There are traps, dungeons, a Macguffin, ancient hidden treasures, and a final confrontation in a clock tower, all related with humour and confidence.
Although lacking some of the refinement of Miyazaki’s later work – remarkably, the director managed to turn the film’s production around in just four months – the quality of the animation and design is nevertheless top notch. That opening sequence, a mad chase down a winding mountain road is a spectacular one. It’s a testament to Miyazaki’s brilliance as an animator that he manages to fuse a weighty realism, all twisted metal and broken axles, with the comedic and physically impossible – a balancing act he manages to pull off throughout the film.
Scenes of humour and Buster Keaton-like physicality are contrasted with moments of surprising harshness or creepiness – the Count’s personal army of hooded assassins move with a stealth and robot efficiency that’s borderline disturbing, and just when we might begin to think that Lupin’s superhuman, Miyazaki reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that he’s just another flesh-and-blood human.
As well as being an assured feature debut, The Castle Of Cagliostro demonstrates Miyazaki’s knowledge and love of movies. As Helen McCarthy pointed out in her superb book, Master Of Japanese Animation, there are numerous references to Hitchcock’s romantic thriller classic, To Catch A Thief. The prominent appearance of an autogyro could be an homage to another Hitchcock thriller, The 39 Steps, or it could be a nod to the 1967 James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. Cagliostro’s 60s setting would certainly lend weight to it being a 007 reference.
Like any great action adventure movie, Cagliostro‘s brilliance is largely thanks to its characters. Although Miyazaki didn’t create them, he’d worked with them before, having co-directed a fair chunk of the first Lupin television series in the early 70s. Miyazaki’s handling of Lupin in Cagliostro, however, is quite different from the more arrogant, womanising character seen in Monkey Punch’s manga – something that didn’t sit well with all series fans in the late 70s.
Miyazaki’s lighter, broader approach to Cagliostro would provide a taste of his later, more personal movies. The smart, fearsome Fujiko, Lupin’s former lover and sparring partner, is a progenitor to the similarly tough Nausicaä. The Count’s villainy could be seen as a relation to the evil Colonel Muska in Castle In The Sky, a film which also shares some of Cagliostro’s soaring, romanticised European architecture and gripping action.
Although The Castle Of Cagliostro is by no means unknown, it isn’t as commonly mentioned as Miyazaki’s output of the 80s and 90s, when his international fame began to spread. Maybe this is because it’s so unlike his signature movies, with its adventure plot and absence of signature themes such as childhood innocence and ecology.
It is, nevertheless, a Miyazaki film through and through, from its immediately engaging characters to its elegant design and composition. Having spent several years working as an in-between artist for animated television shows, Cagliostro marked Miyazaki’s first chance to explore the possibilities of feature filmmaking, and this new sense of creative freedom is clear to see in every frame.
The Castle Of Cagliostro is also evidence of a seldom-mentioned fact: as well as a remarkable animator, artist and storyteller, this debut film proved that Miyazaki is a truly outstanding action director.
The Castle Of Cagliostro is out on Blu-ray on the 12th November.