With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!
It may come as a surprise to many people, but the legendary Hayao Miyazaki’s first theatrical film was Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. While Miyazaki is inseparable from his work with Studio Ghibli, the company wasn’t always an institution in Japan. Having been founded in the mid-80s, artists such as Miyazaki and Ghibli co-founders Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata were working in other forms of animation before transitioning to film. Each of these names was involved in manga and television programs, the most notable of which was the first season of the original Lupin III anime.
While both Miyazaki and Takahata are credited with over half of the episodes of the first season, their influence wasn’t directly felt until the latter half of that season. In actuality, Lupin III got off to a bit of a rocky start. Viewers weren’t keen on the darker aesthetic the show had and how unlikable Lupin was. Due to the efforts of the future Ghibli staff, Lupin III was eventually morphed into a more lighthearted show and adapted a style that would become foundational for the series going forward.
With all of that background out of the way, it’s really not that surprising that Miyazaki would helm Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro as his first feature film. He had a history with the character and series and was now being given a budget to craft the ultimate Lupin adventure. This being a pre-Ghibli world, though, there really isn’t much here that you can point to as Miyazaki’s signature style.
In trying to think of an angle to hang this feature on, I sat and pondered what typifies Studio Ghibli films to me. One of the most distinct elements of every Miyazaki film is the theme of being in a fantastical land. Take big hitters like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Both of those films feature their protagonists as audience surrogates for the larger-than-life journey ahead. When viewing a Miyazaki film, you aren’t the only one learning about this new and wondrous place.
In certain areas, The Castle of Cagliostro does have elements of this. The titular castle is formed by architecture that is very much not realistic. While it is influenced by European sensibilities, it doesn’t strictly adhere to the laws of reality. There are impossible large towers, hanging chambers, and a ridiculously massive aqueduct that would have taken the Romans hundreds of years to build. It’s meant to create that larger-than-life experience, which the entire story embodies.
As contemporary analyses of the film have noted, The Castle of Cagliostro is quite similar to the Indiana Jones films. While some assert that Miyazaki influenced Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas, that is highly unlikely. This movie’s original release date does pre-date Raiders of the Lost Ark by a few years, but the film didn’t receive an English release until the early 90s. Unless Spielberg has understood Japanese for the last few decades, he probably never heard of Miyazaki until much later in his career. Even if that head-canon isn’t true, it’s hard to deny that a lot of the style and charm that would propel Indy to critical and commercial success is present in Lupin III.
That is maybe the biggest influence that Castle of Cagliostro has had in defining not only the character but Miyazaki’s personal style. Instead of being the rough and tough rogue that he was originally portrayed as Lupin is a kind-hearted thief here. He and Jigen, the typically hot-tempered marksmen of Lupin’s group, have their personalities almost flipped from prior depictions. These gentler leading characters are something Miyazaki would feature in all of his films, even if a few movies are morally ambiguous.
That change in characterization follows Goemon and Fujiko, two other allies of Lupin. Goemon was always very stoic and mostly silent, but here he cracks more jokes and speaks more often. Fujiko was practically written to be the definition of over-sexualization, yet she is modestly dressed and rarely flirts in this film. It’s a bold statement from Miyazaki about how he views the characters, going so far as to recontextualize their dynamic and shift it for the better. Initially, these changes were not well-received by longtime fans of the anime.
As for the rest of the movie, there really isn’t a lot here that Miyazaki would carry into his future projects. There is the incredibly smooth animation and meticulous detail that epitomizes Studio Ghibli projects, but not much else. I’m not saying this to criticize The Castle of Cagliostro for being lackluster or anything. On the contrary, I actually feel this film is better than a few of Miyazaki’s later works. I only mean to dissect how Miyazaki would evolve from this project when he finally was unchained.
Being shackled to an IP such as Lupin III means that artists have to adhere to certain tropes. It would be incredibly bizarre for a Lupin adventure to not feature his allies, so Miyazaki has to include them here. They don’t add that much to the overall film as the journey is more about Lupin’s struggles, but Miyazaki was able to put his own spin on them as noted above. To assert such control is definitely bold, even if some 40+ years later, these changes have become normalized.
You also have the general story of Lupin projects not being particularly deep. Again, this isn’t meant as a criticism as the world needs pulp-action thrillers. Everyone loves a good serial where things are one-and-done and you have fun while watching. The Castle of Cagliostro is a blast, but there isn’t much depth beyond its popcorn thrills. There are no ponderings of man’s place in society or a reflection of wartime struggles that the Japanese faced, themes that Miyazaki would tackle at Ghibli. Surprisingly, though, there is some subtext about the government’s complicity in allowing “beneficial” crime to go unchecked.
All of the points I’ve been making may sound detrimental work to The Castle of Cagliostro’s benefit. In focusing more on animation rather than creating a layered piece of fiction, Miyazaki was able to demonstrate his command of the anime style. When going back to early anime, you’ll see how utterly flat some of it looks. I’m not even talking about more traditional proportions or the lack of big eyes, but just background details. Typically made on the cheap, old-school anime can feel very static. While main characters are given proper attention to detail, background elements may be flat-shaded, left empty of color, or contain only a couple of frames of movement.
You do see some of this in The Castle of Cagliostro, but the majority of the work is the on the level of stuff that wouldn’t hit television screens until the 90s. Taken from the context of a viewer in 1979, one likely felt as if this film was something from the future. As I said, it doesn’t have the depth of later Ghibli projects but does showcase Miyazaki’s immense talents in animation. In its newer 4K HDR form, it also looks breathtakingly beautiful, holding up against modern digital animation with ease.
It’s a craft that would only continue to grow as Miyazaki’s career raged on. There is a reason why all these years later, the name Miyazaki is practically synonymous with anime. Even if he never set out to redefine the art form, his impact with films such as Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro changed the expectations of audiences. There was no going back after this, which thankfully, Miyazaki never did.
Join us next time as Jesse Lab takes a look at Miyazaki’s second film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.