Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki & Haruya Yamazaki
Starring: Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Makio Inoue, Goro Naya
You know someone is a master when their humble beginnings exude so much joy and quality, only for them to progressively improve. Even with the machinations of a simple story, Hayao Miyazaki utilizes strong storytelling in his feature film debut, The Castle of Cagliostro. A film that produces lots of fun and lays the foundation for a legendary career.
Constantly on the run for his thieving, Arsène Lupin III (Yasuo Yamada) and his crew catch wind of a large counterfeit scheme happening. This leads them to the castle of Count Lazare d’Cagliostro (Tarō Ishida), as he attempts to forcibly marry Lady Clarisse d’Cagliostro (Sumi Shimamoto) and unleash the power of combining their two rings.
Starting off following their latest heist, this film quickly establishes the type of protagonist we’re set to follow. Extremely confident but also exceptionally skilled in his chosen profession, Arsène runs this sharp crew, who can amass money and continually evade law enforcement. He instantly turns up the charm and becomes someone we can root for even if his profession may not be noble.
The story then moves towards the potential of their biggest payday of tracking this counterfeit scheme and how they can get in on the game. Taking on this newfound challenge inadvertently turns our thieving protagonist into a hero. As they discover, Lady Clarisse appears to be in trouble with goons sent by the Count, which forces the hand of Arsène and his crew to help out if they want to get to this counterfeit scheme. Establishing this character in this manner shows he remains authentic to himself where he will never be an upstanding citizen, but he knows right from wrong.
The setting utilized for the majority of the film then becomes this large castle and how Arsène needs to navigate it to accomplish his goals. It feels almost like a maze and looks quite intimidating in its design along with the foes he must take on. One of my favorite aspects of this feature comes with the goons sent after Arsène and his crew. They wear this complete outfit with their hands as weapons. I appreciate their look, but also the threat they pose to our protagonist, which makes it unbelievable how he can escape with his life after each altercation.
Continually chasing Arsène is Koichi Zenigata (Gorō Naya), a detective always on his heels following the latest plunders. The rapport between the two proves to be one of begrudging respect, yet an intense rivalry with each of them operating on opposite sides of the law. Together they find a common enemy in the Count, as they begin to pursue this counterfeit scheme for different reasons, obviously. It makes for an unlikely team-up but one with the chance to utilize both of their skills to take on something bigger than both of them.
The mystical nature of this film comes through with the Count’s plan. In order to access the full power available to him, he needs to be with Lady Clarisse and take her ring. The plan seems simple because it simply is but it works for the sake of this story and allows us to focus more on Arsène and his crew’s exploits. While the film works on those magical levels, it also speaks on the power held by men like the Count and the difficulty that comes with accountability. This mostly shows itself when the story focuses on Zenigata attempting to convince his superiors to go after the Count for the counterfeit scheme he runs. As expected, the justice system does not work as expected and the detective needs to get creative in trying to expose the illegal operation he knows will harm his community.
The tone of The Castle of Cagliostro remains fairly light, which makes sense for a Miyazaki film. In this feature, he decides to focus on the adult Arsène rather than children much like in most of his well-known work. It’s interesting to see him handling someone like Arsène as the protagonist because his morals do not align with nobility, which seems to be the case with his child characters. They represent purity and naivete in their cruel world, but Arsène knows the way his world works and does what it takes to survive.
As a first feature, The Castle of Cagliostro shows the brilliance Miyazaki will display in his career. The story has its straightforward elements but also adds incredible entertainment value to its story. Arsène becomes someone easy to connect with in his pursuits to save a damsel in distress on his journey to make more money for his crew. Not all heroes need to have the best intentions to make a difference in the world it appears.