I have been an anime fan for over a decade now, yet somehow, I have only ever seen three Studio Ghibli movies. That’s a strange thing to say, because if the general discourse is to be believed, the works of Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takehata and their peers are to anime what Mine Sweeper and Solitaire are to video games — their appeal and popularity so thoroughly exceeds that of virtually any other work within their specific medium that most people would not even be comfortable lumping them together at all. To a certain degree, that’s understandable. Studio Ghibli have broken Japanese box office records time after time again, and Miyazaki in particular has a filmography only an extremely small group of his peers can ever hope to match in terms of critical acclaim. The kind of anime you watch when you call yourself ‘a fan of anime’, on the other hand, has a fundamentally different appeal. It’s edgy, it’s messy and most of all, it’s personal. In fact, one could argue capital-A anime is so appealing simply because it lacks the broad appeal, the effortless perfection and universal acclaim that other animated films -— Studio Ghibli’s in particular — do get. Liking anime makes you special, makes you an individual with unique tastes. Liking Ghibli movies, on the other hand, just makes you someone with common sense. Of course, you like Ghibli movies. Join the club.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to deny that Ghibli’s output is anime. Its trailblazing role in popularizing the medium and expanding its boundaries is well-documented, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a director, concept artist or animator currently active in the industry who’ll refute ever having been influenced by Miyazaki and co. Because of that, I find it strange that the anime fandom in general seems to take Ghibli for granted, seem to consider their works so undeniably excellent they’re not even worth discussing at all. That just rubs me the wrong way. Is it really true that hardcore anime fans would have nothing to say about these films? Are they so fundamentally different from the anime we identify with that they might as well be considered a wholly different beast? To answer these questions, and to fill in this gaping hole in my credibility as an anime lover, I have taken it onto myself to delve into Ghibli’s back catalogue and, now that the large majority of their films are streaming on Netflix*, deliver you my piping hot takes straight from the oven.
(*) … unless you live in the US, Canada or Japan, in which case you’ll have to pay for an HBO Max subscription once it launches, or pay a visit to your friendly neighbourhood home video retailer.
For this feature, I have compiled a somewhat arbitrary list of films either produced by or strongly associated with the legendary studio based on what I am personally interested in watching, as well as what is readily available to me. Purists and pedants alike may argue that Miyazaki’s first two films were not produced under the Ghibli name, but I believe that treating these films as part of the canon is integral to fully understanding and appreciating how the master’s art has evolved over the course of several decades. In other words, I’ll be kicking off this feature with Miyazaki’s feature film debut and the movie that arguably cemented its titular character as one of anime’s most recognizable faces…
Japanese title: Lupin Sansei: Cagliostro no Shiro
Release date: 15 December 1979
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
In the second feature film to carry his name, Lupin III and his fire-forged companion Daisuke Jigen have just stolen millions from a casino in Monaco, only to find out that the bills have been forged. Tracing the money back to the microstate of Cagliostro, the charismatic gentleman thief soon discovers that forgery isn’t the only evil plaguing the nation. The sinister Count is looking to marry the young Clarisse against her will, and keeps her locked up in a castle guarded by invisible lasers, European ninjas and Lupin’s arch-nemesis — Inspector Zenigata. Uncharacteristically driven by entirely selfless motivations, Lupin calls in his usual crew to infiltrate the Count’s fortress and rescue Clarisse.
As brilliantly laid out the most recent television anime featuring him, the history of Lupin III has always been one of carefully finding a balance between the character’s raunchy origins and the fundamental potential for mainstream appeal roguish archetypes like him inherently possess. Nowadays, the gritty — or at least an interpretation thereof that would be appropriate in the year 2020 — Lupin and his kid-friendly alter ego can co-exist more or less peacefully. That was apparently not the case in 1979, however, as The Castle of Cagliostro divided fans and underperformed at the box office, seeming because it — literally and figuratively — softened up Lupin from cutthroat criminal into dashing hero. The shift is as jarring as it is unceremonious. The Lupin of Cagliostro doesn’t develop to point when he wants to save Clarisse because it’s the right thing to do, he’s gallant from the get-go. Even compared to the pragmatic yet kindhearted rascal featured in most recent adaptations, something does feel “off” about this Lupin — to the extent that when he does behave like the scoundrel he’s supposed to be, it feels incredibly out of place.
Ironically, The Castle of Cagliostro is at its worst when it tries to tick the boxes on what a Lupin III adventure is supposed to be: The forgery subplot is mostly an excuse to get the characters to where they need to be and the lip-service paid to Lupin’s complex dynamic with franchise femme fatale Fujiko Mine comes across as obligatory rather than essential. Perhaps most strikingly, a throwaway scene in which the titular hero tries to chat up a barmaid in a way that would most certainly get the man cancelled in this day and age feels out of place here — a strange thing to say, as lechery comes as natural to Lupin III as, say, logical deduction comes to Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, the fact that Cagliostro pushed the boundaries of what or who Lupin III could be doesn’t make it any less of a Lupin movie to me. Everything that needs to be there, from the madcap capers to the car chases in Lupin’s iconic Fiat 500, is there, and Miyazaki’s clear disinterest in exploring moral ambiguity — in his own words, to present the “sense of apathy” that he perceived in Lupin’s earlier adventures — does not take away from the sheer entertainment factor of it all.
The reason for this is simple. While The Castle of Cagliostro is — let’s be honest — thematically indistinguishable from your average episode of Scooby-Doo, its appeal can be attributed almost entirely to Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant vision. Serving as director, designer and storyboard artist on the film, he injects the film’s setting with a striking warmth that brings to mind the idyllic charm of a picture book. The spirit of traditional animation lives in this movie, which frequently jettisons the rules of physics in order to maximize the visual appeal. Cars bounce across the road like basketballs, sinister cultists cast large, eerie shadows on candlelit walls and characters stretch and squeeze their way through the titular castle’s bizarre interior like sugar rushing to the brain. On a more micro-textual level, small character details like Lupin and Jigen feuding over a shared plate of pasta breathe life into the broad archetypes Cagliostro‘s story has moulded the characters into, but rather than a capitulation, this is a Glorious Revolution. The effortlessness with which Lupin’s world bows to Miyazaki’s vision betrays his genius, reducing any need The Castle of Cagliostro might have for an actually interesting narrative.
“Effortlessness” really is the core word here. I already mentioned it in the introductory paragraphs to describe my impression of Ghibli’s works as a whole, and here too I find no better term to describe the sentiment that The Castle of Cagliostro emanates. It pays homage to Golden Age animation — how refreshing is it to watch an anime that predates the common visual language of the medium? — but adds enough of its own to avoid coming across as a Disney pastiche. Synching the soundtrack to the on-screen action? Classic. The sheer chops required to make a Fiat 500 chasing a Citroen 2CV through the bucolic European countryside exciting, though? Absolutely mesmerizing. From its love for clunky, clanging machines to its pitch-perfect execution of a classic fairytale narrative, The Castle of Cagliostro is a movie that appeals to the child in every one of us. It’s a movie that even the most cynical film critic will immediately peg as brilliant, even though ultimately, I find very little to say about it that can’t be brought back to giddy excitement. It’s a movie for the heart, rather than one for the brain, and if there is anything I can truly hold against it, it would be that any attempt to find a deeper meaning in it will most likely fall flat.
Let me be perfectly clear — The Castle of Cagliostro is an absolutely phenomenal movie, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you exactly why. I can appreciate its aesthetic qualities, its vibes, as it where, but on the level where my criticism usually operates — the cerebral — you’d be hard-pressed to find anything worth writing home about. This movie’s plot is so conventional it might as well have been based on a 12th century court romance. Heck, even the thematic trifecta of environmentalism, pacifism and feminism Miyazaki’s works are said to pretty much ooze with is hard to track down in Cagliostro. Infuriated as anime’s grumpy grandpa may be at the mere notion of Clarisse being the blueprint for the modern moe archetype, it has to be said that she doesn’t exactly do much to escape her role as the damsel in distress. She is, like all the characters in this movie, little more than a catalyst for positive emotions. Like a moe character in a modern anime, she really is there to spark a desire to protect in the viewer, just as much as Lupin is there to provide the fun escapist fantasies, Fujiko is there to poke your curiosity or Zenigata is there to roar his way to yet another humiliating defeat. Even the villain, the Count of Cagliostro, isn’t so much a credible threat as he is a smirking buffoon embodying a kind of abstract, inhumane douchebaggery that rather than fear or disgust, only incites anticipation for him to get his butt kicked.
In the end, however, Cagliostro‘s clear desire to be taken at face value is more of a personal pet peeve than it is an actual slight against this movie. In what it sets out to be, it is perfect, and therefore perfectly lines up with what I have always believed the core appeal of Studio Ghibli’s movies is. To some, it may spit in the face of the franchise it is based on. If a lesser director had been in charge, these people might have had a point. Yet with Miyazaki at the helm, Cagliostro transcended its source material and managed to enchant people who’d never even seen an episode of Lupin III in their entire lives and probably never will. This movie has gone from the black sheep of the franchise to what is commonly perceived as both its qualitative peak and its main gateway. If that doesn’t speak to its quality, I don’t know what will.
Next time, Glorio goes Ghibli goes green, as I delve into Miyazaki’s first independent effort and the movie without which we wouldn’t have both Final Fantasy and Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1984’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind!