In 1979, the Bond franchise was being taken to literal– if not exactly figurative or critical– new heights with the release of the space-faring Moonraker. While the franchise was in the midst of jumping the shark, the Bond film essence of thrilling and elegant escapist adventure was ably captured in an animated feature from Japan. An entry in the long-running anime and manga series Lupin III and the feature debut of legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, The Castle of Cagliostro is the best Bond movie that’s not a Bond movie, and maybe one of the best adventure movies ever made.
The plot: Having just stolen a fortune from the Monte Carlo Casino, world renown gentleman thief Arsène Lupin III (Yasuo Yamada) and his partner-in-crime Daisuke Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi*) realize that the money is all infamous counterfeit “goat bills”. A search for the source of the counterfeits bring them to the tiny country of Cagliostro. Immediately upon arriving, Lupin saves the life of Clarisse (Sumi Shimamoto), the princess of Cagliostro, who is fleeing from her arranged marriage to the evil Count Lazare d’Cagliostro (Tarô Ishida), who plans to use her to find the country’s long-hidden treasure before killing her. Vowing to rescue Clarisse and find the source of the counterfeit bills, Lupin embarks upon his greatest scheme with the help of Jigen, the stoic samurai Goemon Ishikawa XIII (Makio Inoue), thief and Lupin’s ex-flame Fujiko (Eiko Masuyama), and the unwitting aid of Lupin’s rival, police inspector Koichi Zenigata (Gorô Naya).
The elements that made Castle of Cagliostro a commercial and critical failure at its initial release are the same that recommend it 36 years after its initial release. Contemporary criticism centered around Miyazaki’s changes to Lupin’s character, the version in Cagliostro being more kid-friendly than previous iterations (he’s closer to Roger Moore’s Bond or the one Lazenby may have grown into rather than Connery or Fleming’s original). In previous media, Lupin’s persona was less “rakishly charming rogue” and more “lecherous scumbag”. While Miyazaki’s changes place Castle of Cagliostro out of step with other entries in the Lupin III series of the time, these changes also make it work better as a memorable standalone film. Because Miyazaki is presenting his version of the character for the first time, entering the world of Castle of Cagliostro and Lupin is easier than most movies spun-off from a long-running anime. It also allows Cagliostro to enter the rarified company of great all-ages adventure movies.
Miyazaki’s true gift as a filmmaker is his ability to craft narratives that are as rich and engaging for children as they are for adults, and it’s a gift that makes Castle of Cagliostro so magnetic. Key to success are characters and a story that are simple but incredibly rich. The plot is thrilling and engaging without ever becoming terribly complicated; and while the characters are broadly drawn at times, they’re immediately understandable and appealing, drawing on classic cinema and books without being beholden to them. Cagliostro is romantic in both the modern and classical definition of the word. It’s packed to the brim with the elements of classic gothic romance as it is with those of 20th century spy and crime thrillers, and it’s also very much a cartoon, wielding the elasticity of animation to generate humor and action that wouldn’t fly in the adventures of Bond or Indiana Jones. Miyazaki never relinquishes tension or thrills in the name of appealing to a younger audience, nor does he forget for a moment the underlying optimism that makes Cagliostro so unique. It’s one of the few adventure movies I could show to my young cousin or another twenty-something and be reasonably certain they’d enjoy it the same amount.
While it’s perhaps not as slick as Miyazaki’s later films, the animation in Castle of Cagliostro is gorgeous. The attention to detail, be it in the spires and intricate carvings of the eponymous castle or in the ghastly horror of the castle’s dungeons, create an immediate sense of place. Though set in the 70s, the idealized European backdrop provide the film a timelessness that would be harder to accomplish in a live action film. The world of Castle of Cagliostro the romanticized Europe that’s likely never existed outside the world of Gothic novels and James Bond movies, and it’s rendered with the warmth that many globetrotting adventures can’t truly afford.
The Castle of Cagliostro has been referenced from everything from The Simpsons Movie, to Batman: The Animated Series, to The Great Mouse Detective, but it’s a movie that still feels criminally under-watched. Miyazaki’s later films are deeply personal and are much more emotionally affecting works, and his first, near-perfect popcorn movie gets overlooked in comparison– imagine one of our great auteurs had started his careers directing the best Bond movie ever and you’ve got the idea– but it’s one just as worthy of love as the rest. As Thanksgiving get closer and families gather around screens as well as tables, finding movies that can thrill and entertain child and adult a like can be a challenge. Like its hero, The Castle of Cagliostro accepts that challenge with a wink and a smile.
*The version I’ve seen was dubbed in English, but the cast here reflects the original Japanese voice actors.