While I may consider Miyazaki one of the very best writer/directors who ever made films, animated or otherwise, that is not to say that I will automatically adore everything he does. Indeed, there are a few of his movies I consider to be good, but not great. This is one of them.
This was Miyazaki’s first movie as a director, and the only one not considered part of the Ghibli canon. True, Nausicaä was made before Ghibli’s foundation, but most of Ghibli's staff was formed from the team that made that film, it’s generally considered part of the studio’s work. Cagliostro takes the Lupin III franchise’s well-known characters (in Japan at least…and perhaps one day internationally if Miyazaki’s fame continues to rise or Spielberg ever does the long-rumoured live-action adaptation) and puts them in a typical perilous situation: tracking down the source of counterfeit bills, Lupin and his nakama find themselves uncovering corruption in the heart of a small country, and of course a beautiful and innocent young damsel to rescue.
Other artists have made Lupin and co look much cooler, but Miyazaki’s design suits the slapstick tone of this far-fetched story well. There’s no magic, but most of the fights and the tricks Lupin manages to pull off are cheerfully unlikely and silly. The story is loose as can be, climaxing in the most slapdash ending of all Miyazaki’s slapdash endings, but there’s a lot of fun to be had with the playful interaction between characters and the inventive setpieces.
It’s not hard to see the huge influence Lupin III had since his manga debut in 1967 (writer Monkey Punch based him on the original Arsene Lupin, of course). The clown that can be very serious when needed is now second only to the innocent young boy on a voyage of discovery as a typical shounen protagonist (and often the two are merged). The cast of Cowboy Bebop are heavily based on these prototypes – replace Ed with Zoro from One Piece and everything would fall together. And this movie is generally regarded as the best Lupin III has to offer.
But it’s really quite slow and predictable, and only sporadically funny. It hasn’t dated too well, shaky framing and washed-out colours reminding me of cartoons like Inspector Gadget – not necessarily a bad thing (oh that the Inspector Gadget movie had been this good) and the animation does hint at glories to come, but watching someone make a good film with what materials they had and watching someone make a genuinely good film is different. Fun as it is to see what will become Miyazaki hallmarks (design, simple and obvious romances, mid-air drama…and this is the first of three Miyazaki movies with ‘Castle’ in the title), that doesn’t make the film itself any better or any worse.
Not a bad movie, by any means. But I would rank it as similar to, say, a middle-tier One Piece movie. A nice addition to a franchise and certainly an entertaining diversion, but no great classic – nothing that I would watch again and again.
(Originally written 26.8.06)