The latest animation Blu-Ray to come out marks the HD upgrade of the debut of a certain director who this writer likes rather a lot…

Lupin III is a thief, a rascal and a gentleman, obsessed with finding the biggest job that would prove his assumed position as the greatest thief ever. When he discovers some counterfeit money, a city supposedly hiding some legendary treasure and a princess in peril, what else can he do but get involved? Alongside his loyal sidekick Jigen, Lupin tries to rescue the girl, but finds he may have got more than he bargained for when he clashes with the villainous Count of Cagliostro, whose castle hides many secrets. Cue rooftop sneaking, clock tower duels and physics defying car chases, all of which you can now watch in bright, beautiful high definition, courtesy of Studio Canal.

Before the poetry of Studio Ghibli came the pratfalls of The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki‘s debut feature film and something quite tonally and aesthetically different to the classics we know and love (Spirited Away, Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle etc.). Yet in spite of this being a zany, madcap franchise entry that feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon than anything like the sophistication of his later work, Cagliostro subtly hints at the future master Miyazaki would become, foreshadowing many of his favourite themes and obsessions. Not only that, but it is, as with all of his work, a superlative piece of story telling, and a riotously inventive film that shows a director primed to become the greatest animator ever. It may not be what you expect from Miyazaki, but it’s a fascinating and fun entry into his body of work, and a wonderfully creative début.

The most immediately noticeable difference of Cagliostro from the rest of his body of work is the look of the film. From Nausicaa onwards, Miyazaki tended to favour gentler, although no less bright, colours. The pastel shades of his Ghibli era films allow for greater detail in the landscape, and give the films a grander, more artistic feel. Here however, loud, blocky colours are the order of the day, with thick, clearly defined lines and only the occasional flourish of landscape detail (the castle, for instance, is an impressively drawn feature). The full title of the film, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, hints at the film’s basis in a franchise, and indeed the gentleman thief at the centre already had his own manga, television series and one film. Miyazaki had worked on several episodes of the series and so was a natural choice to direct the second feature film, but it also meant he was working to intense studio demands, and within an already established world and aesthetic. As such, this looks far more cartoony than his other films, which is complemented by the rather Looney Tunes sound effects and people flailing in the air before plummeting through trap doors.

The action sequences, therefore, are suitably bonkers but so energetic and vibrant that it’s difficult not to get swept along with them. It’s in these sequences that we see two recurring images with Miyazaki crop up for the first time: a love of all things that fly and insane, death defying motorists. In the opening car chase, along a precarious looking coastline, Lupin manages to overtake a car full of goons by driving at 90° along the cliffside before crashing back down onto the road. This is a world where people can jump and fall impossible distances, or swim upwards against a waterfall. Yet in spite of this being the most action packed, cartoonish film of Miyazaki’s canon, such ludicrous scenes are echoed in the way the mum in Ponyo careens round corners at high speed, or even when Kiki clatters her way round town on a broom. Miyazaki loves transport, and its possibilities within animation, and it is perhaps most evident in this, his debut film.

Aside from the look of the film, this also feels tonally very different to Nausicaa and the Ghibli films that followed it. Where his other films veer between epic fantasies or intimate childhood stories (often combining the two), nothing really comes close to the crazy capers of Cagliostro. Miyazaki’s love letter to aviation, Porco Rosso, is perhaps closest in tone, with its European setting (something else that he continually returns to) and adventurous spirit. But really this is more like an anarchic, kleptomaniac version of Tintin, with lots of disguises, snooping and even a snarling villain for them to investigate. Yet where Hergé’s hero is a rather bland do-gooder, here Lupin is a womanising, self-interested charmer. In fact, the central character was even toned down from the more lecherous narcissist of the manga and the TV show. Spielberg reputedly loves this film*, and his version of Tintin clearly owes a debt to the light-hearted, hugely inventive way the action pans out (see the brilliant motorcycle chase in that film to see what I’m talking about).

The Castle of Cagliostro is a bold, bright action film and a wonderfully entertaining debut from Miyazaki. It’s not as complex as his later films, but it is perhaps more fun than any of them; the fledgling director clearly enjoyed making it, and he shows a real flair for action and story that served him well in later films. Set to a carefree jazz soundtrack and featuring some mind boggling action sequences, this is far better than you might expect of a sequel a film based on a TV series. It also allowed Miyazaki to make Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, which then paved the way for the beginning of Studio Ghibli. As such, enjoyment of this hugely entertaining film is made all the more sweeter by the knowledge of what Hayao did next.

Extras: A trailer and picture-in-picture storyboards, which show a fascinating insight into the animation process, but you could have hoped for a bit more.

Keep your eyes peeled on the blog tomorrow (hopefully) for an article on the Blu-Ray release of the greatest animated film of all time.

*Thanks to @adamhopelies for this Spielberg nugget. 

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