‘The Castle of Cagliostro’ helped build the foundations of Studio Ghibli


For nearly four decades, Studio Ghibli has released many of the anime industry’s greatest films. The studio has earned a reputation as an artistic and technical powerhouse. Its many talented artists and directors have strived to maintain this reputation over the years. However, few have helped this pursuit as much as Hayao Miyazaki. He is often credited with co-founding Studio Ghibli and directing many of his best films. However, his most significant contribution to the studio predates its founding in 1985. Six years earlier, in 1979, Miyazaki laid out a plan for his later films with “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro”.

“Lupin the Third” and the origins of Miyazaki’s film

Miyazaki’s involvement in “The Castle of Cagliostro” and the “Lupin the Third” franchise has a unique history. His first big hit was the 1971 anime series “Lupin the Third: Part 1”, which he co-directed alongside Masaaki Ōsumi and Isao Takahata. The series depicts the criminal adventures of the titular Arsène Lupine III, the grandson of Maurice Leblanc’s famous fictional thief, Arsène Lupin. Each episode follows Lupine III as he engages in various heists and assassinations while on the run from international police and numerous criminal organizations. Each episode features entertaining storylines defined by their slapstick humor, clever writing, and memorable characters. While the series was aimed at a much older audience than Miyazaki’s later work, notably being one of the earliest examples of adult anime on television, it demonstrated an ability to tell light-hearted yet gripping stories. As a result, he would be chosen to direct the second theatrical film in the franchise, “The Castle of Cagliostro”.

The film follows Lupine and his band of thieves on their journey through the fictional country of Cagliostro. They arrive looking for a secret counterfeit money maker. However, they soon discover the plot of a villainous count who intends to marry the princess of the country, thus becoming its king and gaining access to the hidden treasure of the royal castle. With this revelation, the group sets out to intervene in the Earl’s plans while tracking down the source of the counterfeit notes.

Miyazaki’s increased creative influence on “The Castle of Cagliostro” set the film apart from any other entry in the “Lupin the Third” franchise. Unlike the mature spy thriller formula of the original TV series, the film adopts a lighthearted tone that tempers the show’s adult content. Instead, it delivers a family history closer to “Indiana Jones” than “James Bond.” Despite these changes, the film successfully combines humor with compelling drama that often surpasses the original series. The Count of Cagliostro is a simplistic villain, but his ruthless personality gives him a menacing presence. The mysteries surrounding the printed currency and the castle’s hidden treasure create an intrigue that keeps the story from suffering through the dull moments.

“The Castle of Cagliostro” also features a light reimagining of the traditional “Lupin the Third” cast. While the original anime and manga series characterized its protagonist as a greedy womanizer and a remorseless killer, the film features a slightly older, wiser version of Lupin who is born out of his previous vices. Miyazaki described his portrayal of the character in a 1981 interview stating, “Lupin lived in his glory in the 1960s and early 1970s, now living in regret and shame for his wild young life.” As with the rest of the film’s narrative elements, Miyazaki’s version of Lupine successfully appeals to a wider audience without betraying the character’s original personality.

Despite the film’s ties to the “Lupin the Third” franchise, its visuals and settings are powerfully reminiscent of Miyazaki’s later work. Cagliostro is far more grounded than the imaginative settings of “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”, but it shows an impressive degree of detail and variety. Its sun-kissed hillside roads and nighttime streets are home to frenetic chase scenes, while moss-covered ruins and rustic farmhouses provide beautiful backdrops for the film’s quieter moments. Miyazaki consistently uses brightly colored backgrounds to bring the fictional country to life in every scene.

The film’s most excellent artistic highlight is its titular castle. Its tall towers and ancient design contrast with the modernity of typical Lupin décor. Instead, its fairytale aesthetic is reminiscent of early Disney works. However, the location of the monumental castle in the middle of the lake makes it an intimidating sight. The interior reinforces these impressions with its initially luxurious halls and chambers, while dangerously steep roofs and subterranean catacombs reveal its dangerous secrets through thrilling action scenes.

“The Castle of Cagliostro” demonstrated Miyazaki’s strengths as a filmmaker. Its smooth animation, unique environments, and excellent pacing stood out among many other 1970s animated films. as another entry in the series. As a result, Miyazaki’s talent was widely recognized and praised rather than overshadowed by massive franchise stature. The film’s success ultimately marked the beginning of Miyazaki’s outstanding career in animated film.

Cagliostro’s influence on early Ghibli

Although it was Miyazaki’s first attempt at a feature film, “The Castle of Cagliostro” was well received by critics and audiences. However, in an interview with Animage Magazine, he expressed a desire to improve the film, stating, “I also have so many bitter memories and regrets about this film.” Although he won’t direct another “Lupin the Third” film, many elements of “The Castle of Cagliostro” will be refined in Studio Ghibli’s first film, “Castle in the Sky.”

The film follows the journeys of two children. The first is Pazu, a boy who seeks to prove his father’s discovery of a floating castle named “Laputa”. The second is Sheeta, a girl from a royal family who possesses an amulet with strange powers. Due to the unknown nature of these powers, she is hunted by military forces who intend to use the amulet for unknown purposes. Eventually, the Deuteragonists cross paths and work together to stop the army’s plans while discovering the amulet’s connection to Laputa.

On the surface, “Castle in the Sky” shares many similarities with Miyazaki’s first film. Major key plot points are present in both films, such as the importance of the princess’s family heritage and the revealing of certain plot twists. Even the opening credits sequences use similar methods to present each film’s setting. However, “Castle in the Sky” differs from Miyazaki’s first film by fully showcasing his artistic and storytelling skills. Unlike the grounded European backdrop of Cagliostro, the world of “Castle in the Sky” offers a creative mix of steampunk and fantasy. The film features airships as a common mode of transportation for wealthy elites, government forces, and criminal gangs. In contrast, those who live in the field reside in small mining towns where workers operate fictional machinery detailed enough to appear real.

However, the creation of Miyazaki’s creative world is best exemplified by the film’s namesake. Laputa’s monumental stone architecture is overtaken by nature, with a giant tree sprouting from its center. Its appearance alone informs audiences of the castle’s ancient origins, while its ability to hover above seemingly more advanced airships hints at its hidden technology. “The Castle of Cagliostro” demonstrated a similar practice of incorporating storytelling into its environmental design, but “Castle in the Sky” builds on this concept by abandoning the realistic setting of the former. The lack of connection to the real world results in new and compelling locations, both visually and in the storyline. While Miyazaki’s debut film was fantastic, “Castle in the Sky” enhanced the narrative with its heightened creativity and polished storytelling. Moreover, it proved that audiences had yet to see the full extent of Miyazaki’s talents and imagination.

Influence on later works

“Cagliostro Castle” and “Castle in the Sky” allowed Miyazaki to chart the course for the future of Studio Ghibli. These early films attracted large audiences with likable characters and simple yet engaging stories. Each film also embodied Miyazaki’s artistic passions and skill, creating believable sets that would become more detailed and imaginative as Studio Ghibli honed its craft with later projects. It’s unlikely the studio would have developed the same reputation it holds today without “The Castle of Cagliostro.” The film served as a prototype for many of the studio’s early works by demonstrating Miyazaki’s abilities while allowing room for growth and refinement. For this reason, the film is still worth watching today, both as a landmark in Studio Ghibli history and as a fantastic film on its own merits.

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