Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), dir. Hayao Miyazaki (courtesy of Toho)

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro might seem like a strange introduction to Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Superficially at least, Cagliostro doesn’t quite resemble what people see as ‘a Miyazaki film’ — for starters, the soundtrack isn’t by Joe Hisaishi, and there are no forest spirits or impending environmental disasters to be found here, such as in his breakout hit Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. That said, it’s still imbued with the spirit of those later films. Released 40 years ago this Sunday, Cagliostro established Miyazaki as a notable talent , and can be seen as the opening of a loop that closes with his latest film The Wind Rises — one that shows Miyazaki’s changing attitudes towards the animation industry. Both, whether consciously or subconsciously, question the meaning of life’s pursuits via their protagonists’ chosen professions. 

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), dir. Hayao Miyazaki (courtesy of Toho)

Cagliostro feels like the bedrock of Miyazaki’s career, not just his first feature but an example of his attention to detail and the joy he finds in the freedom of movement that animation allows. Made following Miyazaki’s work as co-director with Isao Takahata — who, along with Miyazaki and others, co-founded the famed Studio Ghibli, known for its animation productions such as the Oscar-winning Spirited Away — on the TV series Lupin the Third: Part I, the film matches the series’ absurd action – vehicular chases through mountain passes, physics-defying leaps between rooftops. The series and subsequent films were adapted from manga by the mangaka known as Monkey Punch, and The Castle of Cagliostro hems pretty close to that series’ template: the gentleman thief Lupin III is accompanied on a daring robbery by his best friend and right-hand man Jigen and the quiet ronin Goemon, and all are chased by the bumbling policeman Zenigata. In this film, the second feature adaptation of Lupin III, they journey to the fictional nation state of Cagliostro, in pursuit of invaluable printing plates for counterfeit money. Once there, they discover a princess, Clarisse, locked in a tower awaiting a forced marriage to the evil count Cagliostro, who presides over the state. Their escapades lead to the discovery of a treasure with a more abstract value than gold or cash — Lupin discovers what turns out to be an ancient city lying beneath the land, inherited by Clarisse’s ancestors, which he calls “a treasure for all mankind.” In the end the only reward he takes is a metaphysical one, as described by an uncharacteristically sentimental Zenigata to Clarisse: “he ran off with a tremendous prize… your heart.” The money has slipped through Lupin’s fingers, but that is irrelevant; the chase continues, and the act is what mattered anyway. – after all he always leaves a calling card, the act needs to be witnessed. 

The Wind Rises (2013), dir. Hayao Miyazaki (courtesy of GKIDS)

Where Cagliostro follows the antics of a master thief (though Miyazaki drew some ire for softening Lupin’s edges), The Wind Rises features a more humble subject: Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero fighter plane used by the Japanese in the Second World War. Through Jiro, The Wind Rises acts as a fairly transparent reflection on Miyazaki’s career via a morality tale concerning his favorite subject: aviation. Despite its nature as a biopic, Miyazaki still engages with the world of fantasy through dreams and dreamscapes, staging impossible movements that can only be realized  through imagination. 

In both this and Cagliostro, Miyazaki uses fantastical, gravity-defying movement that contrasts the limitless potential of the imagination with the crushing oppression of the real world. Compared to Cagliostro, the villains of The Wind Rises are mostly ephemeral; a spectre of death hangs over the film as Jiro’s idealism and ambitions clash with his reality. Jiro believes war will only lead to ruin but he doesn’t really believe that he can change anything either, he can only make beautiful airplanes. Miyazaki sees himself facing this same struggle. In both this and Mami Sunada’s 2013 documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki directly compares engineering and animation — one character, an imaginary version of the Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni that appears in Jiro’s dreams, insists that airplanes are “not for making money… airplanes are beautiful dreams.” But as Caproni and Miyazaki himself put it, the dream is “cursed.” It’s strange to see the esteemed animator call his profession a pointless “hobby,” but the existentialism matches up with the work on display in The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises (2013), dir. Hayao Miyazaki (courtesy of GKIDS)

If Miyazaki’s musings in The Wind Rises correlate with his feelings on working in animation at the time of making it (his process of creating the script as he storyboards gives the sense that the films spring directly from his brain), then Cagliostro could be linked to the ambition of his past. In her documentary, Sunada plays archival footage that details the inception of Studio Ghibli, revealing part of Miyazaki’s mission statement as being “what’s important is that you’re doing what you love.” Where The Wind Rises wonders whether the accomplishment will be worthwhile or meaningful, its predecessor Cagliostro takes thrill in the chase itself, in Lupin’s pursuit of treasure, and every wild leap he takes. Much like Miyazaki’s concluding speech in Kingdom of Dreams — “what if you could leap between those two buildings? or climb up that pipe, run across the rooftops and onto the wires? In animation, you can do that” — this careful attention to the freedoms of animation feels like the point of Cagliostro, which flaunts its disregard for human limits. What makes Cagliostro a true treasure is the discovery of a lost history, and the actions taken to discover it, a tangible reward is ultimately unimportant. 

But Miyazaki also wonders aloud if movies can inspire a meaningful change in the real world, and if they can’t, then what’s the point? This uncertainty bleeds into The Wind Rises, as the audience is reminded that all the planes Jiro designed never returned home. The beginning and end of Miyazaki’s career presents two very different views on how a life is best lived. Perhaps it’s something for Miyazaki’s forthcoming final feature How Do You Live? to answer. Until then, we must live, as best as we can manage.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), dir. Hayao Miyazaki, is now streaming on Netflix as a special edition.   

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Kambole Campbell

Kambole Campbell is a freelance writer and critic based in London, with work appearing in Empire Magazine, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, The Independent, The Guardian, Birth.Movies.Death. and Polygon....