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The Castle of Cagliostro

Hayao Miyazaki is best known as the director of My Neighbor Totoro, the smash hit Japanese animated film. It was subsequently released by Fox Video here in America, though because it's not a Disney film, it's still largely unknown to audiences in this country. This is a pity, because Totoro is a wonderful movie for young audiences. It defies the anime stereotypes involving robots, demons, samurai warriors, women with tight clothes and huge breasts, and lots of graphic violence, and above all it is a fun, entertaining movie. Miyazaki's movies have all been aimed at the "family" audience, and his stories are often full of comedy, exciting action, and energy; on the Internet mailing list for discussion of Miyazaki's works, he is often referred to as "The Steven Spielberg of Japan."

Miyazaki had created and produced many animated series and movies before the success of Totoro, however. Among other works such as Sherlock Hound, Nausicaa, and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, he was responsible for the adaptation to TV of a highly popular comic series by Monkey Punch called Lupin III, and in the late 1970s he produced an animated TV series based on the character. Many episodes of the series were produced, along with two animated movies: The Fuma Conspiracy and The Castle of Cagliostro. Cagliostro received a stroke of good fortune: it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980, where it enchanted audiences and gained a reputation of its own. (Rumor has it that Steven Spielberg himself saw the movie at Cannes, reportedly enjoying it immensely.)

Streamline Pictures obtained the rights to release The Castle of Cagliostro on video in the United States, and a subtitled print of the movie was screened at several art houses across the country. A dubbed version of the film was released on video in 1992, and copies of this video can still be found with various video companies. The dubbing job is sufficient, in that there are no lines of dialogue that make the viewer wince; the lip-synching is quite good. The movie was subsequently re-released on DVD in the late 1990s, with a more accurate dialogue translation – but worse voice acting. If you see this one, be sure to catch the subtitled version and avoid seeing the dubbed edition.

Lupin III is a fine animated series, but The Castle of Cagliostro stands out as its high point, and a high point of Japanese animation as a whole. It's an exciting, hilarious, cartoony romp packed with memorable characters, delightful animation, and enough thrills and cliffhangers to rival the Indiana Jones and James Bond series. The animation is every bit the equal of Disney's productions of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it avoids most of the anime cliches as well. (There's a samurai here, but no demons.)

The hero of the story, "Wolf" (the English translation of "Lupin"), is the world's greatest thief: he's a clever, ingenious trickster with an arsenal of gadgets, who is always one step ahead of his enemies…yet he can't help jumping into a new adventure to save the life of a pretty girl.) This concept is similar to Columbia Pictures' Lone Wolf series of the 1930s [based on Louis Joseph Lance's character], and the character may have been taken from there.) He finds himself caught up in a fiendish plot involving counterfeit money, a hidden treasure, a princess locked away in the highest tower of a castle, and the evil Count Cagliostro, who intends to marry the princess and reunite the two halves of their long-separated family.

Unlike many Japanese animated films, The Castle of Cagliostro doesn't take itself seriously, instead devoting itself to giving the audience a fun roller-coaster ride. The plot is complicated, but not overly so (prolonging the climax too far is a common fault with anime), and the supporting cast of Lupin's friends and enemies have been well-developed by this time, so that they stand out on their own and seem lifelike and believable.

One notable scene has Lupin surrounded by about two hundred bad guys, all with their blades pointed at his throat – but Lupin remains calm and undisturbed, still in control of the situation. Aplomb of this sort doesnt occur very often on the screen, especially in cartoons. Lupin is a worthy descendant of Bugs Bunny; this makes him more than a mere two-dimensional hero figure.

Added to the plot are outlandish car chases, gunfights, battling ninjas, scuba diving, dark inescapable dungeons, lots of explosions, and lots of laughs. This film uses the reality-defying tricks of the animated film to give us great slapstick, death-defying stunts, impossible physics (how'd you like to drive your car along the side of a cliff?), and characters who heal from near-fatal wounds in the space of one day. It's a good thing they do, too, otherwise they'd never be able to survive the furious action of this wild ride…and still escape from the clutches of Inspector Zenigata, the police inspector who is obsessed with capturing Lupin once and for all. (Shades of The Pink Panther!) The final climax of the film takes place inside a huge clock tower, and though the final resolution doesn't blend with all of the funny action scenes beforehand, it still satisfies and leaves the viewer smiling.

Miyazaki's company, Studio Ghibli, signed a distribution contact with Disney in 1996, and Disney now has the distribution rights to all of his films. His fans hoped that this would means his older films, such as Castle of Cagliostro; but the only older Miyazaki fims to be given the Disney treatment were Laputa and Porco Rosso. (Anime conspiracy theorists have suggested that Disney has released Miyazaki's movies in such a way that they don't compete with Disney's own movies in America…which is why Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away both died at the box office, despite being enormous hits in Japan.) Cagliostro has already been released on (cheap) DVD in the USA, and Disney is not producing better, more elaborate editions of this fine movie. This means that people wanting to watch The Castle of Cagliostro will have to search for the dubbed video release from Streamline Pictures, or get the later DVD if they can find it.

Fortunately, this is a movie worth searching for.