Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Castle of Cagliostro

Lupin III – the name suggesting antecedence in Maurice Leblanc’s famous creation Arsene Lupin – is, like his namesake, a gentleman thief. He’s also an inveterate (if sometimes hapless) womaniser and an aficionado of the kind of gadgets that make you wonder if he doesn’t have a trade account with Q branch. All in all, a pretty cool guy. Cool enough, anyway, that he can get away with a lime green sport coat, black shirt, yellow tie, blue chinos combo.

Assisted by all-purpose sidekick Jigen – a hulking tough guy who’s good with a gun, dependable in a scrape and so befuddled by plot developments that he spends most of the film asking Lupin to clarify exactly what’s going on – Lupin has effortlessly relieved a casino of its takings in Danny-Ocean-meets-the-Keystone-Kops stylee as the film opens. Making good their escape, Lupin and Jigen barely able to see through the windscreen of their getaway car for the bundles of cash that surround them, it soon becomes apparent that this is one big score that’s gone south.

The money is counterfeit.

Lupin sets out to track down the perpetrator, the trail leading him to the principality of Cagliostro. He and Jigen quickly get into trouble, interceding in the impending royal wedding between heir to the throne Count Cagliostro, and his less-than-willing bride-to-be, the Princess Clarisse. Something dubious is afoot and Lupin happily gets himself embroiled. The arrival in Cagliostro of Interpol agent Inspector Zenigata, intent on arresting Lupin, complicates matters. So does the presence of Fujiko, Lupin’s (also kleptomanically-inclined) old flame.

‘The Castle of Cagliostro’ was Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature-length film after more than a decade working in television. He’d already directed several episodes of the ‘Lupin III’ TV show, so ‘Cagliostro’ was a natural choice for his debut movie. A light, frothy, almost slapstick caper, with none of the deeper concerns that run through Miyazaki’s later works, its animated style is often very redolent of its small screen roots. Nonetheless, there are plenty of indications of things to come: exhilarating aerial sequences (flying, whether by machine or mythical creature, features in virtually all of his films); castles (‘Cagliostro’ is the first of three Miyazaki’s that have the very word in the title*); and, in the plucky Clarisse and the kick-ass Fujiko, his penchant for strong heroines is already evident.

His next project ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’ (reviewed by my better half on these pages last year) would raise the bar in terms of theme, content, intellectual concerns and quality of animation. It would also prove the first of his deadly serious works (the hugely acclaimed ‘Princess Mononoke’ falls into this category). Personally, I prefer my Miyazaki served with a seasoning of humour and a twinge of the wistful (‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ achieves a nice balance) and I find both ‘Nausicaa’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’ a bit of a long haul.

‘Cagliostro’ is flat-out absurdist humour, from the boiiiiiing sound effects as Lupin and Jigen athletically hurdle a series of obstacles while fleeing the casino, to a car chase that makes ‘Wacky Races’ look like an exercise in kinetic realism. Miyazaki gleefully crams the 100-minute running time with perilous escapades, hair’s breadth escapes, fiendish plots and last-minute rescues, homaging everything from Leblanc’s original Arsene Lupin adventures to the big-budget absurdities of the post-Connery Bond films by way of ‘Raffles’ and ‘To Catch a Thief’.

That ‘Cagliostro’ is Miyazaki’s first and (by comparison) least accomplished film is beside the point: it’s thirty years old and delivers more fun, flair and imagination than any American animation outside of Pixar.

*The other two being ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’.

No comments: