Before commencing a period of activity that – from Nausicaa to the present – has so far given us a dozen or so of the greatest animated movies we’re ever likely to see, Hayao Miyazaki and his future Studio Ghibli colleagues completed this second animated feature in the Lupin III franchise.
A thrills and spills adventure movie with a touch of romance, dash of intrigue and liberal spread of action, Castle of Cagliostro stands as great an achievement in a fun and frolicking sense as anything Ghibli has since produced. It may not have the lofty environmental themes or sensitivity to coming-of-age that highlights Miyazaki’s best work, but through the roguish Lupin, an array of sidekicks, and Cagliostro’s wonderfully baroque European milieu, Miyazaki is able to deliver us an outrageously brash and highly stylised experience that remains breezily engaging even in its darker moments.
Highlights include Lupin establishing a truce with his long-time shadow Interpol inspector Zenigata, the car chases and other swift moving scenes so highly praised – apparently – by Stephen Spielberg, the squad of grotesque ape-like ninjas at the beck-and-call of Count Cagliostro, and Lupin’s audacious night-time effort to clamber over the rooftops of Cagliostro’s spooky castle in order to make an unseen visit to a captive girl. An assortment of vehicles and some kind of ornithoper also make grand appearances, demonstrating Miyazaki’s fascination with exotic contraptions, gadgets and toys of flight, especially with respect to the creation of magical moments during escapes, where we’re suddenly flung away from conflicts into a highly contrasting peaceful environments, if only for a few seconds.
This might be the earliest must-see event of Miyazaki’s career – with wide distribution, it’s certainly the most accessible outcome of his early work. It may not have the boldly portentous undertones of masterpieces to come, but for exuberant fun and abstract invention, Cagliostro does the trick. If there’s one shortfall – a very minor gripe – it’s perhaps the weakness of Cagliostro as a villain. As all smarm, awful hairpiece and bluster he’s a fairly one dimensional and insipid piece of work that fails to engage in the same way, for instance, as the psychologically complex, ambiguously motivated antagonists in Princess Mononoke.