Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 1, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1979)

Last month, the internet was shaken straight to its nerd-heart by news that Studio Ghibli might be closing its door. These initial reports turned out to be slightly exaggerated but, at the very least, the beloved animation studio is taking a break. This is following Hayao Miyazaki, the most critically acclaimed of all their filmmakers, officially retiring last year. I've long been an admirer of Miyazaki, which I realizes makes me exactly non-special in anime fandom. I've been wanting to do a proper Miyazaki Director's Report Card for years, since I've owned all of his movies for quite some time. Because everything here at Film Thoughts moves at its own pace, I'm just now getting around to it.

Despite my last several Report Cards being loaded with concurrent Report Cards and bonus reviews, I will not be reviewing the films of Isao Takahata or the other Studio Ghibli filmmakers. I would have liked to, and probably will at some point, but, seeing as how Halloween starts in 18 days, time is of the essence right now. So one will have to do.

1. The Castle of Cagliostro
Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro

Lupin III is a long-running, beloved franchise in Japan. The series follows the adventures of a world-renown thief, the grandson of Arsene Lupin, Maurice Leblanc’s famous 19th century gentleman thief. Lupin, along with his two best friends, sometimes love interest, and his Interpol investigator archenemy, have appeared across numerous platforms over his forty-seven years of history. From Monkey Punch’s pricklier/sexier/more violent manga, to several different television series of varying softness and popularity, to annual television specials and theatrical films, to even two live action movies; Lupin and his cohorts have been wildly popular enough to show up in just about every medium possible. Despite its iconic status in its home country, the series has never really caught on over here. “The Castle of Cagliostro” is the second of the Lupin III theatrical movies. It would probably be relatively obscure in this country if it wasn’t the directorial debute of Hayao Miyazaki, who would go on to become the most beloved animator in the world since Walt Disney. It also happens to be a pretty good movie in its own right.

Despite being part of a long, still on-going series, enjoying “The Castle of Cagliostro” requires no previous knowledge of the Lupin the 3rd universe. Part of the series appeal is that its characters are easily explained. Most of them, in fact, aren’t much more than fictional archetypes. Jigen, Lupin’s best pal and constant confidant, is soft-spoken, his face usually obscured by an ever-present, sloping fedora. He’s also the best shot in the world, which makes him more-or-less a modern (or sixties mod anyway) version of the wild west gunslinger. Goeman is an anachronistic samurai, whose blade can cut through anything, who doubtlessly shares a common ancestor with Sanjuro and Zatoichi. The love of Lupin’s life and sometimes the thorn in his side is Fujiko Mine who is like a Bond girl on the offensive, since she always gets one over on Lupin. Zenigata dresses like Alain Dulon in “Le Samourai” and is the Sheriff Nottingham to Lupin’s Robin Hood. Though their relationship is more comical than antagonistic and the two frequently wind up working together. Then there’s Lupin himself. Like his grandfather, he’s a thief. How gentlemanly he is varies from version to version but he’s always a rogue and a trickster, whose wileness makes him incredibly likeable and whose charm makes him endlessly entertaining. The series has been described as a cross between James Bond and Indiana Jones but, at its best, the series is funnier than Bond, more unpredictable than Indy, and is less gimmicky than both.

The Lupin III films and TV episodes rarely drew anything from Maurice Leblanc’s original Lupin stories. “The Castle of Cagliostro” takes a little more than usual, featuring a few stray references to the far-flung source material. The title and the name of the film’s villain are taken from what is probably Leblanc’s most famous story. Otherwise, this is an original tale. In it, Lupin and Jigen job a casino only to realize they’ve stolen a horde of counterfeit money. Tracing the fake dollars back to the tiny nation of Cagliostro, Lupin and his friends are pulled into a plot involving a princess held captive, an evil baron, a booby-trapped laden castle, and a hidden treasure.

If most of the Lupin characters are riffs on popular culture types, then “The Castle of Cagliostro” pulls from even older source material. The film is, in many ways, a fairy tale. Clarisse is the princess of the tale. She is held captive in an isolated tower, like Rapunzel before her. While he doesn’t climb up any hair, as a honorable thief, Lupin seems to fit the role of her rescuer. The evil Count Cagliostro fits the role of the fairy tale villain too. He is cruel and greedy. He holds Clarisse for no reason other than marrying her will make him the inheritor to her family’s fortune. Naturally, he plans on killing the girl immediately afterwards. In the final act of the film, the Count even puts on a black mask and fancy cape, fulfilling his role as a comic book supervillain. The booby trapped laden castle reminds me of classic fairy tales too. “The Castle of Cagliostro” draws from a number of literary sources, young and old.

More than anything else, “The Castle of Cagliostro” is infectiously, uncontrollably fun. From its opening minutes, it establishes its joyous goofy streak. The movie begins with Lupin and Jigen fleeing a casino with their stolen cash. The two leap into the air, legs extended, bounding forward like a pair of Bob Fosse dancers. The musical score underlines the absurdity of the image with a flighty bit of synth on the soundtrack. The first major action scene of the movie is an over-the-top car chase. Stumbling upon some bad guys doing bad things, Lupin and Jigen take chase. The tiny yellow mirco-car they're in weaves around flying debris. In an early, stand-out moment, the tcar actually drives up the side of a cliff wall, getting the drop on the pursuers. Early moments like this establishes “The Castle of Cagliostro” as a fun-first, logic-second action flick.

There are a number of wonderful action sequences in the film. Strictly for the sake of fun, the villain is armed with ninja-like henchmen. Walking around with slopping, simian posture, the fighters are decked out with iron gauntlets ending in impossibly sharp claws. Later on, we find out the claws even shoot out like rockets. A daring escape from the castle involves characters leaping onto a flying gyro-copter, weaving through machine gun fire, falling from burning planes, and landing precariously in a moving vehicle. Yet the best orchestrated action is saved for the film’s climax. The hero and the damsel, the villain close behind, run to the clock tower outside the castle. Running inside, the fight scene takes place among the whirling gears and gyros of the clock’s inner working. Having to avoid being crushed in giant gears or running across spinning cogs adds an amazingly dynamic quality to the scene. Undoubtedly an inspiration to “The Great Mouse Detective,” it’s an incredibly clever final fight and one of the most memorable things about a film that has no shortage of memorable moments.

“Castle of Cagliostro” also happens to be really funny. There’s almost a Buster Keaton-like quality to the way Lupin wiggles his way out of crazy scenarios. While sneaking into the castle through the water system, Lupin is comically pulled through a series of paddles and flapping doors, taking it all in good stride. While attempting to reach Clarisse’s tower, he clamors up the side of the building. He stumbles around, attempting to get a grappling hook to operate. When the rocket rolls down the slope, he takes chase, running at Sonic the Hedgehog-level speeds, and leaping through the air between towers. Even the character seems startled that it worked. A lot of the humor also comes from contrasting the hero’s devilish charm with his more square opponents. Maybe the funniest moment in the film is when Lupin disguises himself as Inspector Zenigata, fooling the castle guards into a conflict with the cop and his squad of identically uniformed enforcers. The slapstick conflict takes place on a overly narrow stairway and escalates quickly.

Yet even more humor simply comes from the interaction between the characters. Lupin and Jigen have clearly been friends for a long time. When the thief is keeping something to himself, the shooter grapples with his friend, attempting to wring an answer. A tiny but fascinating moment comes when the two don swimsuits to sneak into the castle through the river. While diving beneath the surface, Lupin tells his friend there’s a small hole in the floor, just as he trips in it, splashing under the water. It’s the kind of tiny, real life moment many other films would have left out. As rewarding as the relationship between Lupin and his friends are, the strange bond he develops with Zenigata might be more so. The two eventually end up in the dungeon of the castle, surrounded by the skeletons of explorers who have tried, and failed, to escape. Among the dead is a Japanese soldier who took his own life after leaving a message scratched into the stone overhead. Both men stop to pay respect to the dead man. This proceeds the thief and the cop forming a temporary truce and shows a common bond between them. In the last act, the two more-or-less team up, the inspector helping to blow the lid off the Count’s counterfeiting. The begrudging, oddball respect the two enemies develop for each other makes the relationship more complex than simply the dumb cop chasing the smart crook.

“The Castle of Cagliostro” is a big adventure flick arguably without a major romantic subplot. The plot is mostly launched when Lupin comes upon some bad guys chasing after a pretty girl. He immediately takes to protecting the girl, who, of course, turns out to be Princess Clarisse. Rappelling down the cliff with a Bond-style gadget grappling hook, Lupin holds onto the unconscious girl. He immediately takes a shine to her. After she runs off, he holds onto the silk glove she left behind. The meeting between the two in the tower purposely recalls a heroic prince coming to save an imprisoned princess. But Lupin’s not a prince. He’s a thief and a scoundrel. Fujiko describes him as a “ladykiller” later on. Yet Lupin doesn’t leap on Clarisse. He seems hypnotized by her innocence. When she hugs him at the end, he visibly recoils, holding himself back. Because he would like to take the girl but he knows it would be best for her if he didn’t. Deep beneath the action-adventure spectacle and pulp-mystery plot line, “Castle of Cagliostro” is the story of a cad learning to become a gentleman.

Before working on his first feature film, Hayao Miyazaki had mostly worked in television, including fifteen episodes of the first Lupin III television series. He was actually the second choice to direct “The Castle of Cagliostro” and only took the job after the original director bailed. It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker as detail oriented as Miyazaki directing his first feature film mostly by happenstance. Yet the animation is as vivid and detailed as any of his future movies. An incredible amount of attention is paid to the cars the characters drive, what clothes they wear, what guns they use. One close-up is on Lupin’s cigarette lighter, which is shown to be insanely realistic. Food crops up repeatedly in the film. One moment blatantly contrasts the nobles inside Castle Cagliostro eating a glamorous feast with Lupin and Jigen chowing down on instant ramen. Yet all the food looks delicious, whether it be spaghetti in a bar or the Count scooping a cooked egg out of its shell. The vehicles are realistic, from Lupin’s rickety Fiat 500 to the gyro-copter the Count flies around in. The walls of Clarisse’s tower are painted with stars and separate suddenly and fluidly. A trapdoor is activated by the blinking eyes of a bust of Caesar. The character designs are agreeably cartoony but don’t let that distract you from the unbelievable amount of work that went into making the world of “Cagliostro” feel real and lived-in.

Despite being his first feature, many of the reoccurring themes and trademarks that Miyazaki would revisited are present in “Cagliostro.” The character designs follow Monkey Punch’s original sketches to a degree. The men are lanky but broad-shouldered and much attention is paid to their long legs. However, the faces have a gentle roundness to them and the eyes are clear and expressive. The film displays much of what would, in time, become the Studio Ghibli house-style. The villain’s favorite mode of transportation provides the director with his token flying sequence. Miyazaki pointedly took the time to transform femme fatale Fujiko into a tough action chick, armed with grenades and uzis. Clarisse might be a damsel in distress for part of the run time but it should be noted that she attempts to escape her situation before she does anything else. It was clear from the beginning that flight and strong, but not overly sexualized, female characters were things that interested Miyazaki.

“The Castle of Cagliostro” is so joyously likable that its hard to imagine some one not enjoying the film. But some people didn’t. The film actually underperformed at the box office when it was first released. Hardcore Lupin fans sometimes look down on the film for the changes it made to the source material. In the manga and animated series, Lupin is more of letch and a conman. Here, he is so enamored of Clarisse’s innocent that just touching the girl forces him to back away. In the manga, you can be certain that Lupin would have taken advantage her. Jigen is funnier and Goemon is more talkative. Fujiko, usually a hyper-sexual femme fatale, barely shows any cleavage. Instead of a simmering sexspot, this version of Fujiko most resembles a female commando, spending most of the film in a camouflaged jumpsuit. You can’t really deny that Miyazaki buffed off the property’s rougher edges in the name of wider accessibility. Yet the changes works in favor of the film, helping to capture a lighter, more fun atmosphere.

It might not be the director’s most personal film or his most polished. As good as the animation is, some of it is undeniably dated. The cheesy score also marks the film as a product of the seventies. Flaws and all, “The Castle of Cagliostro” is a ripping good yarn. It’s a fantastic introduction to the Lupin III characters while still operating smoothly as a stand alone story. It has lots of action and laughs but still takes its characters and plot seriously. For a first time feature, it’s incredibly impressive and a good sign of things to come. [Grade: A-]

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