REVIEW: Lupin III – The Castle Of Cagliostro (1979)

A Film Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Lupin III is a popular Japanese manga series that revolves around the adventures of Arsène Lupin III, a suave and cunning thief, and his gang as they carry out heists and have adventures around the world. The series is known for its fast-paced action, humor, and stylish characters, and has gained a significant following since its inception. Created in 1967 by Kazuhiko Katō under the pen name MONKEY PUNCH, the Lupin III franchise has been running almost continuously in some capacity ever since. Various shows, films, and comics get released regularly, and luckily, we seem to get all of it over here in the United States pretty easily. While never quite achieving the status of being a certifiable hit in The West, it has garnered a deep cult following that continues to this day.

Most anime fans my age were likely introduced to Lupin III by way of one of two avenues. Most likely watched the English-dubbed version of the 1977 season (known as Lupin III “part two”) late at night on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block in the 2000s. But, if we are looking back even further, almost five to ten years before the TV show’s release, you will find a special class of old-timers that most likely watched a beat-up Blockbuster Video VHS copy of an odd action movie called The Castle of Cagliostro completely unaware of anything else it may be related to. Fans may not have even realized that Hayao Miyazaki made his directorial debut with the very same film. The Castle of Cagliostro is one of the most famous adaptations of Lupin III, and is highly regarded for its animation, action sequences, and humor, and is considered a classic in the anime genre.

Since its 1991 western release (1992 on home video), The castle of Cagliostro has gone on to inspire numerous western films, television shows, and other animated features with a number of A-list Hollywood directors and producers labeling it as one of their inspirations. For the longest time, Steven Spielberg would even cite it as his favorite action movie of all time, and John Lassiter cites it as a big influence on his works. With this year signifying the first time I have gone to screenings for Ghibli Fest (see my Totoro review HERE), I’ve decided to go back watch some other films from the studio as well as this, which as far as I know is not considered a “Ghibli film” despite appearing with its branding on some DVD box sets. The studio itself wasn’t even formed until after production, so this is not surprising.

“When master thief Lupin III discovers that the money he robbed from a casino is counterfeit, he goes to Cagliostro, rumored to be the source of the forgery. There he discovers a beautiful princess, Clarisse, who is being forced to marry the count so he can find the legendary treasure of Cagliostro. In order to rescue Clarisse and foil the count, Lupin teams up with his regular adversary, Inspector Zenigata, as well as fellow thief Fujiko Mine.”

I watched this film with my son as an experiment to see if he would sit through an older animated film, and he was absolutely enthralled by it. Not normally known as a children’s film, The castle of Cagliostro hits all the points that a young boy would enjoy including exciting car chases, guns, comedy, and crazy fight scenes. I was actually pretty surprised it held his interest so well and will result in me finding more Lupin films to show him.

For those unfamiliar with the character Lupin III, he is loosely based on the French literary character Arsène Lupin written by Maurice Leblanc in 1905. Arsène Lupin is seen as being something of the French equivalent to Sherlock Holmes (just on the opposite side of the law), a fact made even more hilarious considering Leblanc wrote a book pitting the two against each other. The threat of a copyright suit against Leblanc resulted in the unfortunately named “Herlock Sholmes” being used in the book. As his name implies, Lupin III is supposed to be the grandson of the original Lupin, albeit retaining only a bit of his gentleman-thief charms.

What he lacks in subtlety, he definitely makes up for in his razor-sharp wit and cunning. He is known for his iconic appearance, which includes a bright jacket (the color of which differentiates the different eras in the franchise), tie, and distinctive side-burns. He’s equal parts full of heart and somewhat lecherous in most iterations. The character is always one or two steps ahead of international police, and always looking for a big score. Most of the time, he ultimately ends up being a hero in the story and saving someone rather than enriching himself financially. This trope is exactly what happens and Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro as his quest for a treasure that has been rumored to be in existence for well over 500 years is not at all what it is cracked up to be.

Lupin III features a colorful cast of secondary characters, such as Lupin’s loyal partners-in-crime: Daisuke Jigen, a sharpshooter with a calm demeanor; Goemon Ishikawa XIII, a skilled swordsman who wields an extremely sharp katana; and Fujiko Mine, a seductive femme fatale and Lupin’s love interest, Fujiko is the woman of action in most stories and is never afraid to throw some grenades or shoot a machinegun to get her way. The group is almost exclusively pursued by Interpol’s Inspector Koichi Zenigata, a relentless and determined police officer who is determined to capture Lupin III and bring him to justice. It truly is a shame that he almost always ends up teaming up with the career crooks then left high and dry. They are joined by a young girl named Clarisse de Cagliostro, a member of the Cagliostro royal family, whose familial line has suffered greatly resulting in her being betrothed to her cousin, the nefarious new Count of Cagliostro (apparently based on the real-life Alessandro Cagliostro).

Some occasionally say that the characters are a bit “off” in this film, in comparison to other iterations, but honestly, everyone is pretty much similar to how they are portrayed in later films and TV specials, so I’m not sure what they are talking about. I guess Fujiko’s hair color is the only thing I noticed being “wrong”.

I think one of the most eye-catching things in this film is just how fluid and gorgeous the animation is still to this day. There are plenty of anime productions from the early 2000s which look like hot garbage in comparison to this 43-year-old movie. Granted, the version I watched was obviously some kind of HD remaster, but I have almost no doubt the film prints are where that came from. The colors were bright and popping, character designs are on point, the music is still good, literally everything you would expect in a modern film is present in this aged movie. Hell, I wish a lot of newer movies took a page from this one!

I mentioned the famous action scenes earlier, and to reiterate, they are still awesome. Some might think they are derivative or that they’ve seen them before, but there’s a good reason for that. This film resonates with people so much to where you can see references or outright homages to it in a lot of different films, television shows, etc. Most notably, a lot of people know about a famous car chase towards the beginning of the film and a huge duel between our titular hero and the evil Count Cagliostro in a ruined clock tower. There are many later films that have the same sort of hectic car chases such as 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin (which Spielberg directed) and Batman: The Animated Series which included a battle between The Caped Crusader and The Clock King which bears a striking resemblance to Cagliostro. Even The Simpsons once referenced this film in a scene to which Bart Simpson fell down a gigantic roof much in the same way Lupin does in this film. I think one of the reasons a lot of these scenes are so iconic are that prior to this a lot of animated films, especially omnes in Japan, did not have any sort of action set pieces such as this. The overall style used in this later became the blueprint for the same sort of scenes Hayao Miyazaki would use in all of his subsequent movies.

It is interesting to note that this film was actually somewhat of a commercial flop in Japan, largely due to the fact that the audience for this largely had preconceived notions as to what the original characters from MONKEY PUNCH should look like and how they should act. The original comic book was a lot darker than this film, so in a way theater goers that were fans might have thought this was a kid’s version of what they particularly enjoyed. After this film, however, the trajectory for the franchise would somewhat shift towards a somewhat more comedic and a bit light-hearted nature, much like this movie so. Its influence on the franchise as a whole was probably a lot greater than what those angry fans back in 1979 could foresee.

One last thing you might notice in this movie, that you might find strange, is that Lupin III is actually referred to as “Wolf” throughout the majority of the film. This was largely due to a rights issue with the Maurice Leblanc estate, the aforementioned writer of the original novels. This also led to a lot of the earlier Western home video releases to be dupped “Rupan III” to avoid issues. I do find it somewhat ironic that this series ran into the very same sort of legal issues Maurice Leblanc fell into the middle of with his Lupin vs Sherlock book, the one that resulted in the equally silly Herlock Sholmes name. I’m actually somewhat surprised that they haven’t done a newer dub of this film and corrected it to what it honestly should be, however the English dub for this is actually pretty good considering the age no matter what. Most English dubs in the early 90s were insanely terrible with some studios (including Orion or Streamline) basically re-writing the whole plot or inserting curse words every sentence in order to make the anime you were watching more trendy and edgy.

Even if you are a member of the “This show is old and sucks” crowd from 2000s that hated Lupin III because it wasn’t Inu Yasha (this sort of fan would be great to do a write up on, this period in anime fandom was rough!), you should really go out and try to give this a watch. Especially if you are a fan of Studio Ghibli, skipping this film is a terrible idea. Lupin III – The Castle of Cagliostro is an anime classic that inspires others to this day. While it never made Lupin a household name in the west, and almost cost Miyazaki his directing job in Japan, the quality has transcended time, and shown that it was perhaps too far ahead of it’s time for a 1979 audience. No Hayao Miyazaki marathon is complete without watching this, and I’m glad to have seen it again after so long.

Stay tuned for a few weeks when I will see the next few films in Ghibli fest, for more details, check out my Totoro review HERE.


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