In the late 1960s, manga artist Katō Kazuhiko, working under the nom de plume Monkey Puch, began writing a series titled (in English), Lupin III. This series told of the adventures of a gentleman thief named Arsène Lupin III, the grandson of Arsène Lupin, the hero of a series of French novels written by Maurice Leblanc (Monkey Punch's failure to secure the rights to the character before creating his own sequel led to a number of fun legal problems that shall not be of any concern to us today). This series proved to be hugely popular - to the great amazement of its creator, and in very short order it was turned into an animated series, beginning with a pilot movie produced in 1969, co-produced by TMS Entertainment and Toho, although it took fully two years for that pilot to result in a 23-episode series that aired from October, 1971 until March, 1972.

At the time, you may recall, TMS Entertainment had just acquired a couple of new talents from Toei: director Takahata Isao, and animator Miyazaki Hayao. These two men were given a chance to co-directed several episodes of Lupin III, under a blanket pseudonym, and their work was quite well-received; but this wasn't enough to keep either man in place for very long, and in short order they'd left TMS; Miyazaki eventually ended up at Nippon Animation, where he made his first breakthrough as a director working from a project he largely guided: the 26-episode series Future Boy Conan.

The Lupin III franchise kept purring along without them, however, and remained popular enough that in 1977, a second series premiered; it would eventually stretch out to 155 episodes. During that time, TMS elected to exploit the popularity of the character by periodically releasing theatrical features during the run of the show, beginning with Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo (as it was retitled by the American distributor and later adopted back home) in 1978. The second feature, released almost exactly one year later, was Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, and it is remembered today not because of the enduring popularity of Lupin III (though he does indeed remain popular), but because it was the first theatrical feature directed by Miyazaki, who'd been seduced back to TMS to give his magic touch to the franchise one last time (in addition to this feature, Miyazaki directed two episodes late in the show's run; they will not be featured in this retrospective).

If hindsight tells us that Future Boy Conan found Miyazaki already developing several of his most important pet themes, then it also tells us The Castle of Cagliostro was a significant hiccup in what would otherwise have been a fairly smooth development from Conan to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It's not saying anything but the truth to point out that The Castle of Cagliostro is, in essence, hackwork; let us not forget that even if Miyazaki was a well-regarded animator in the late 1970s, he was still young enough and sufficiently needful of money that he had to play ball in the industry. Studio Ghibli was still a half-decade in the future, and with it, Miyazaki's freedom from doing these sorts of bill-paying exercises.

On the other hand, for hackwork, The Castle of Cagliostro is awfully good. Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay, and was able to bend the material towards his own interests a bit more than he could in the TV episodes (in fact, he bent it far enough that some Lupin purists have complained that the character in this film is too nice, too gentlemanly, to be the same playboy thief in all the other entries in the franchise). So at the very least, he had some investment in the story that isn't necessarily typical of your common or garden-variety hack. And at the very least, it seems safe to assume that he was enough of a professional to never give less than all of his energies to a project that did, after all, represent the start of his feature film career.

The Castle of Cagliostro follows Lupin III (Yamada Yasuo) as he and his loyal gunman Jigen (Kobayashi Kiyoshi) rob a Monaco casino, only to find their haul made up entirely of nearly perfect counterfeit bills. Such perfect replicas, known as "goat bills" could only have come from the tiny country of Cagliostro, and Lupin gets an idea that now would be a good time to visit that country, although precisely what he has in mind won't be clear for a while yet.

When Lupin and Jigen arrive, there's obviously something more going on than just counterfeiting: the first thing that they find is a woman in a bridal dress being kidnapped by what you can only rightfully think of as "henchmen". She proves to be Clarisse (Shimamoto Sumi), princess of Cagliostro, forced into an impending marriage to the country's current ruler, the Count Cagliostro (Ishida Tarô). Knowing the opportunity for treasure when he sees it, and also having a certain desire to save a princess in distress just because he can, Lupin makes ready to fight the Count and his armored bodyguards, with the help of his sometime-lover Fujiko (Masuyama Eiko), currently working on her own scheme and disguised as Clarisse's maid; he even tips off INTERPOL Agent Zenigata (Naya Gorô), his long-time nemesis, trusting that he'll be able to stay ahead of the cop even as he leads him to find Cagliostro's secret.

Like I said: not much in common with this scenario and the two post-apocalyptic eco-fables which Miyazaki made on either side of it. Which isn't a "good" thing or a "bad" thing, but it does underscore the degree to which The Castle of Cagliostro was already a bit of an aberration by the time of the director's second feature, to say nothing of what we know of his subsequent work. But Miyazaki's affection for the Lupin III universe, and for Lupin himself, is obvious enough; I suspect that this is what drove the softening of his personality in Miyazaki's hands, at least partially. He wanted to draw out what was wise and admirable in the character, to make the audience like him as much as the filmmaker did.

But to otherwise discuss the thematic development and characters in the story is something of a self-defeating prospect: the story is very heavily indebted to a long tradition of Continental thief stories, and Miyazaki doesn't push things very far beyond the established boundaries of that genre. A mere year after Conan's Lana kick-started the tradition Miyazaki heroine, a girl with special gifts and intelligence belying her age, Clarisse in this film is virtually nothing but a damsel in distress, and Fujiko is something like the woman in a screwball comedy, all flirtation and subtext but light on psychology. Which isn't to say that the men are any better: Lupin is delightful, but he's mostly a clown, his sidekicks hardly even register, and the wicked Count is, like Lepka in Conan, a rare example of a flat-out villain in a Miyazaki film (rare, that is, with our current knowledge; in 1979, of course, the exact opposite was true). He snarls and smirks, but has no inner life at all.

I'm not complaining about this, mind you: The Castle of Cagliostro belongs to a very particular genre, and it is an exceptionally entertaining example of that genre, to boot. In his early years, Miyazaki was quite a fan of slapstick comedy, and he was pretty damn good at it, too, so the film remains light and playful, and even a touch goofy, throughout - although, intriguingly, it doesn't seem to be doing those things in a specifically family-oriented way, for unlike Future Boy Conan, or the scattered projects he developed in the '70s, The Castle of Cagliostro doesn't seem to be made "for" children, or even with children in mind; it's certainly not inappropriate for children, but it has a distinctly adult sensibility and its narrative tropes belong rather to the "frothy fun for grown-ups" school than anything taken from children's entertainment. Which I think is probably another sign that this was a film directed by Miyazaki, and not "a Miyazaki film".

But as I was saying, the film is a lot of fun, thanks largely to the breezy character of Lupin at the center. He'd been popular for over 12 years at this point, so its not surprising that he'd continue to be appealing, of course; but it's worth mentioning anyway that he's a really great example of a certain kind of character animation. He's basically a caricature: we need to know what he's thinking the second we look at him, and that's exactly what happens.

He's a completely mutable cartoon character, marvelously expressive without ever being grotesque, although he sometimes looks a little bit like a monkey.

The animation across the board in The Castle of Cagliostro isn't quite up to the design and animation of Lupin himself, although there are some moments here and there that are quite wonderful. Mainly, though, it never lets you forget that this is a theatrical feature made on a television budget. Some shots are just flat-out chintzy looking: one of them is practically the opening of the film.

More generally, there's just a certain stiffness in some of the action, or even a fluttering in the actual position of the cels on the background, a sign that something got bumped in the process (or perhaps the camera was a bit dinged), and they didn't have money to go back and re-do it.

Still, though it looks nowhere near as polished as the most expensive animation from the same period, or even, honestly, as much as Future Boy Conan, it's still a visually arresting film, with impossible backgrounds and locations, and semi-Gothic imagery that suggests a darker undertone than the bright story necessarily does.

Even the cartoonish moments are given extra visual weight by the impressive locations surrounding them. In essence, though it is a cheap film, it is one made by artists who knew how to get the most bang for their buck by emphasising things that could be done well on a budget (design concepts, use of dramatic color and lighting) and trusting that we'd be carried along by those things which really can't (perfectly smooth animation, complex movements and effects animation); and it works. The Castle of Cagliostro is much more beautiful than any TV-derived crime caper has any real need to be, and for that we must be thankful that even in his hackish projects, even before he knew what kind of auteur he would grow up to be, Miyazaki was still committed to creating films that were as much a treasure for the eye and imagination as they were fun stories. Shortly, of course, he'd have a bit more money to throw around and would be able to express his ideas with a richness incomparable to the occasional roughness of his Lupin III work, but that shouldn't prevent us from enjoying what the bright young filmmaker was able to do even in 1979.