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Anime Adventure: Hayao Miyazaki’s The Castle Of Cagliostro (1979) – Blu-ray review

November 6, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Pre-Ghibli but no lesser for it, this non-stop adventure is proof that Miyazaki’s talent took flight long before most of us knew he had wings.

Hayao Miyazaki's The Castle of Cagliostro

The Castle Of Cagliostro
(Hayao Miyazaki, 1979)

By the time that Hayao Miyazaki became a globally feted director – and Studio Ghibli a household name to rival Disney – he was already a veteran. The international breakthrough didn’t come until Spirited Away won an Oscar in 2003, but Miyazaki had been working steadily for several decades.  Even his feature debut, 1979’s The Castle Of Cagliostro, wasn’t exactly an introduction to Japanese audiences.

The first thing to say is that the film continues the adventures of Lupin III, a master thief who was already a well-known figure on television thanks to a series co-directed by Miyazaki with future Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. The second thing to say is that it simply doesn’t matter if you don’t know your Lupin from your Looper. Even though The Castle Of Cagliostro is no origins story, the sheer confidence with which Miyazaki races through narrative means that backstory is irrelevant. Even when characters spring up who (Wikipedia tells me) were mainstays of the series, we take past relationships on trust without feeling that essential information has been missed.

The benefit of this approach is simple: Miyazaki knows this world and, while it might not be as complex or as richly detailed as his later fantasies, it is vividly alive – an off-kilter, James Bond-esque world of gadgets and supervillains, genuinely international in outlook. Pursuing policeman Inspector Zenigata is Japanese, but Cagliostro itself a hyperreal evocation of European principalities. The result is much like watching The Prisoner Of Zenda remade with autogyros, ninjas and lasers, but not stinting on the old-fashioned thrills of swordfights, trap doors and rescuing a princess just because it’s the right thing to do.

There’s more invention here than just about any modern-day adventure you’d care to name, with extended action sequences that are bursting with musicality. In lesser hands, the film would be overstuffed but Miyazaki makes it loose and natural; it’s a film so at ease that Miyazaki can punctuate a nail-biting climb by having the hero fall halfway back down and make it a goofy gag at Lupin’s expense. In fact, the near-slapstick level of characterisation of Lupin – a mere two years before Raiders Of The Lost Ark  – makes it an interesting question if somebody working on that film was familiar with the film or the series.

Otherwise, the biggest interest is that, while Miyazaki is fully-formed in style, he’s not quite in subject. Many of the director’s hallmarks are certainly present here – the obsession with flying, the interest in strong woman (in the form of khaki-wearing wildcat Fujiko) – but others are still to be introduced. Despite the odd mention of the villainous Count of Cagliostro as a magician, there’s nothing here that is out-and-out fantastical, while it’s actually quite refreshing to watch a Miyazaki film without an overt environmental message. That said, the revelation of the treasure that everybody is seeking hints at Miyazaki’s abiding interest in preservation… although, in retrospect,it’s fair to say that the real treasure being uncovered here is Hayao Miyazaki himself.

The Castle Of Cagliostro is released on Blu-ray on Monday 12th November by Studio Canal, gaining honorary membership of the Studio Ghibli Collection.

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