Studio Ghibli founder and Academy Award winning director Hayao Miyazaki is easily the most successful and well-known anime director of all time. His biggest hit in the U.S., 2002’s Spirited Away may have only netted $10 million at the box office here, but globally, the movie made damn close to $275 million.
A large portion of that sum came from Japan, and at $229 million, Spirited Away still holds the record for top box office earner in its home country — topping out every single American blockbuster ever made. In fact, Miyazaki’s last four movies all have a place on the country’s top ten list of big earners — what is this Star War you speak of?
A torch-bearer for classic style anime, Miyazaki’s work often plays with Japanese mythology, typically placing strong-headed young women in fantastic, impossible to conquer situations. To date, he’s directed ten features, almost all of them considered genre classics, including: Princess Mononoke (1997), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984).
Miyazaki has been plugging away in the animation industry since the early 60’s. A manga artist at first, the fledgling animator began his career working on various projects at anime giant Toei Animation, working as key animator on a number of films that, really, don’t have much interest to anyone outside of the really dedicated (unless you’re down to watch Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon).
Eventually, Miyazaki started to bounce between production companies to develop and direct several television programs. It was around this period in the late 70’s that Miyazaki finally broke into directing features.
His first feature, The Castle of Cagliostro, is part of a long-running Japanese adventure series starring Lupin III, a green-sports-coat-and-tie wearing super-thief. Think of Lupin as Japan’s answer to Tintin; he’s a hip, anti-authoritarian adventurer with a good heart who seeks out loot and treasure all over the world.
Keeping him company is an entourage of eccentric crooks and vagabonds: Jigen, a Tom Waits-looking hipster; Goemon, a renegade samurai; and Fujiko, a femme-fatale whose only consistent design feature over the years has been her giant breasts and low neckline.
Castle of Cagliostro opens with Lupin and Jigen making off with a car-full of cash heisted from a Monaco casino, but before they even have a chance to spread the cash on the bed and roll around in it for a night, Lupin discovers that the bills they stole are goat bills, legendary counterfeits that have been financing empires all over the world for generations.
Lupin recognizes the bogus bills from a botched heist during his early days, when the up-and-coming thief nearly got himself killed trying to infiltrate the bills’ presumed source, the island fortress of Cagliostro, a small grand duchy somewhere in southern Europe.
With Jigen in tow, Lupin decides to take another crack at the impenetrable castle, a job that quickly becomes personal when the thief realizes that the nation’s crooked regent, The Count, has kidnapped the royal family’s only remaining heir with the intent to marry her and solidify his claim to power.
Never one to leave an innocent girl in harm’s way, Lupin and his crew attempt to infiltrate the castle to save the girl, as well as get a fat pay-day with the secret of the goat bills. All that stands in their way are killer lasers, steel-reinforced ninja kill squads, the entirety of Cagliostro’s royal guard and Lupin’s long-time rival, Interpol police officer Zenigata.
Loaded with wonderfully animated car-chases and shoot-outs, and a slick 60’s motif, Castle of Cagliostro develops into quite a rousing caper. Miyazaki’s legendary eye for design shows through even at this early stage in his career — especially with The Count’s rocket-powered gyro-copter, the perfect get-away vehicle for any daring rescue mission.
Lupin himself is also quite the charmer, he’s like a dapper Indiana Jones with a crooked streak and an insatiable appetite for women, food and cash. The film isn’t heavy in character-moments, but Miyazaki does allow for each of his principals to have their big hero moment — best of which is Jigen and Goemon, who spend most of the film sidelined until their respective gigantic gun and sword finally get something to do.
As an early film, Castle of Cagliostro feels a bit out of step with the rest of Miyazaki’s career. There’s no wild setting, and no fantastic characters or creatures; an aesthetic that Miyazaki didn’t really develop fully until his next feature, the post-apocalyptic environmentalist fable Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Aesthetically, Castle of Cagliostro looks more towards 60’s and 70’s genre films, with over-the-top action sequences and music that hearkens back to Mario Bava’s own take on a super-cool comic book thief: Danger: Diabolik.
On the whole, Castle of Cagliostro doesn’t reflect what was to come in the career of Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, but even if you look at the film without prior knowledge to Miyazak’s work, Castle of Cagliostro ranks as one of the most fun, romantic and exciting animated capers ever put film. Miyazaki’s later work may be what secured his status as a Japanese treasure, but it’s this early work that shows that he’s a director with a keen eye for classic genre-work as well.
Friday: Anime’s sci-fi answer to Top Gun, the stunning Macross Plus.