Castle of Cagliostro, The (1979)

Director:  Hayao Miyazaki
Cast:  Yasuo YamadaEiko MasuyamaKiyoshi Kobayashi 
Plot:  A flamboyant thief and his gang struggle to free a princess from an evil count's clutches and to learn the hidden secret to a fabulous treasure that she holds part of a key to.

Genre:  Animation / Adventure / Family
Awards:  -
Runtime:  102min
Rating:  PG

“Lupin!  Don't you dare die before I get to arrest you!”

This was before the artistic, cultural and commercial success of Studio Ghibli, yet legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki’s debut feature is a glimpse of his immense potential as a fine storyteller in a medium that he has now personified for the last three decades or so. 

The Castle of Cagliostro remains to be his most flat-out entertaining movie in his entire filmography.  It is a work of a filmmaker desiring to tell a story in the most fun of ways without sacrificing the characterizations and narrative flow so integral to good filmmaking. 

However, Miyazaki was reportedly dissatisfied with the final product because he had to alter his script to meet production deadlines.  Considering he had the luxury of time with Studio Ghibli, his subsequent works such as Castle in the Sky (1986), Porco Rosso (1992) and Princess Mononoke (1997) had more depth and nuance, and along with composer Joe Hisaishi’s iconic scores, Miyazaki’s films slowly became the unmistakable imprints of an auteur.

The Castle of Cagliostro sees a resourceful thief called Lupin and his gang attempting to free a princess trapped in a tower, and at the same time, exposing the hidden secret of the castle.  Lupin is unlike your typical Miyazaki protagonist who is normally female (and beautiful or adorable), yet he is immensely likable despite his penchant for stealing. 

In the film, Lupin charms in ways that remind of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and even Indiana Jones through an array of physical comedy, witty one-liners, and the natural ability to outwit anyone in his path.  Even the music (not by Hisaishi), sometimes working as sound effects, dictate when we should laugh.  The Castle of Cagliostro is an absorbing action-comedy, though it does feel out of place in Miyazaki’s catalogue, but it is never the lesser counterpart to anything he has done. 

It is also quite disturbing, particular the scene that depicts (though not graphically) the demise of the movie’s main villain.  If I was still a kid, I would have laughed at that scene.  Not now.  Therein lies the irony – we think kids might find it disturbing when they are actually snot.  The Castle of Cagliostro is a return to kid-hood and its associated joys.  Miyazaki has never made such a wildly entertaining movie since.

Verdict:  Absorbing, hilarious and fun, Miyazaki’s feature debut is solid in terms of storytelling and is flat-out entertaining.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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