Original blog post here.
You may be wondering what a Greatest Living Author watches when he’s not writing. Well, how about the directorial debut of one of the most revered anime directors of all time?
Anime probably really took off in the North American popular consciousness circa the 90s thanks to the English dubs of series like Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, Digimon, and probably especially Pokémon.
Now, that being said, the English versions of Astro Boy and Speed Racer were popular as far back as the 60s, and I had a middle-aged Prof back during my undergrad offhandedly mention watching Captain Harlock as a kid — further reinforcing my appraisal of him a the best Prof ever…
And, of course, animation in Japan is attested as far back as at least 1917 (date of the oldest surviving Japanese animated film). To say nothing of the various historical forms of art and drama that influenced the medium.
All of this is to say that anime has a history that stretches much further back than most people outside Japan are probably aware of.
Also, while “anime” specifically means “[in the style of] Japanese animation” — “Japanimation” as they were fond of saying when the world was young, thankfully superseded by just “anime” — within Japan, “anime” is an umbrella term for animation in general regardless of style or origin.
Case in point, 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro — probably one of the most influential and acclaimed anime movies of all time.
To the point of allegedly making an impression on North American animators and filmmakers, up to an including Steven Spielberg. However, the truth of the matter seems a little less impressive: that Castle of Cagliostro influenced or impressed Spielberg is, as far as I can tell, entirely apocryphal and Tv Tropes notes that he never even watched it — whether that has changed in the intervening decades since the original release is not something I’m qualified to comment on…
However, it is clear that Castle of Cagliostro and particularly its famous clocktower scene did influence certain North American animators, even if that influence is overblown. See, for example, The Great Mouse Detective.
Honestly, I’m a little reluctant to recommend Castle of Cagliostro, at least in my capacity as the author of a Fantasy series.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great.
It’s just that, so far, I’ve tried to keep all my recommendations Realmgard-esque, or at least Realmgard-adjacent.
Castle of Cagliostro, being more or less what would happen if you crossed a heist movie with a 70s-era Bond movie (incidentally, Castle of Cagilostro came out the same year as Moonraker), kinda stretches that premise.
But, hey, Castle of Cagliostro is about a gentleman thief hunting down a legendary treasure; I write about a little girl pirate hunting down legendary treasure.
Six of one, really.
To put the film in its proper context, Castle of Cagliostro is the most famous movie (second overall) in the beloved Lupin III series.
Featuring the eponymous grandson of pulp literary master thief Arsène Lupin (the First) getting into all kinds of wacky shenanigans, Lupin III has been going strong since 1967. I mention this in passing in my 47 Ronin recommendation…
Since debuting with the manga by artist Monkey Punch (that’s a pen name, in case you couldn’t tell), there’s been several anime series between the 70s and now, there have been 10 theatrical animated movies (including Castle of Cagliostro), a handful of live action productions, there’s a TV movie ever year since 1989.
There’s even a board game, apparently.
Lupin III is a big deal in Japanese Pop Culture.
But I don’t think it’s really penetrated into North America in the same way (beyond the people who are already into anime).
Castle of Cagliostro is clearly an influential movie for North American animators and filmmakers, up to an including (according to rumour, at least) Steven Spielberg — but it seems more like they watched the movie and went “Hey, that’s cool. We should do something like that.”, rather than becoming big fans of the Lupin III franchise.
Now, working under the assumption that this is all new to you, let me get to the main characters:
Depending on the work, Lupin is anywhere between an outright antihero and a modern day Robin Hood.
In Castle of Cagliostro he’s a sort of Han Solo-esque scoundrel with a heart of gold. He’s still in it for himself, but he’s fundamentally decent enough to do the right thing in a crisis.
Jigen is Lupin’s triggerman with a sweet hat and is basically the Chewbacca to Lupin’s Han Solo.
A descendant of the legendary Japanese folk hero, Goemon is a straight-up, completely unironically-presented samurai whose primary function is to be stoic and unfunny in ridiculous situations.
Also, being improbably good at slicing through every substance known to man. But mostly being funny by being so unfunny.
Inspector Zenigata is Lupin’s rival from Interpol, explicitly described by Monkey Punch himself as the Tom to Lupin’s Jerry.
Zenigata’s main role is to try (and fail) to catch Lupin. Notably, this isn’t because Zenigata is a bumbling moron. He’s good. Lupin is just better.
Also, the main character.
Occasionally they will team up — as is the case in Castle of Cagliostro — against actual bad guys. Lupin may be a thief, but he isn’t a villain, or even particularly unpleasant on a personal level…
And then there’s Fujiko.
She‘s some combination of Lupin’s love interest, ally, rival thief, and/or independent wild card in general.
The longer version: Fujiko Mino is probably one of the most popular female characters in anime.
And, uh, a large contributor the fact that a lot of the Lupin III franchise outside of Castle of Cagliostro can’t be considered family-friendly.
Despite being fictional and animated, she’s probably one of the biggest sex symbols in Japanese pop culture and most of the entries in the franchise aren’t shy about running with that fact.
Fujiko actually got her own anime series (that I’m not going to link to) that is likely the most adult-oriented entry in the franchise — by several metrics, not just the, shall we shall, “mature themes.” But, seriously, if you’re the easily-scandalised type, it’s 12000% not the kind of thing you’d want to watch.
For reference, on anime streaming service HIDIVE, Parts I, IV, and V are rated TV-14, whereas II, III, and Woman Called Fujiko Mine are rated TV-MA.
Castle of Caglistro itself is PG in Canada (though we do tend to be more lenient that American ratings) and according to IMDB fluctuates between the equivalents of G and PG-13.
Which may have something to do with the fact that there are two English dubs.
There’s the initial 1992 dub, which, as I understand it, plays fairly fast and loose with the original script (a fairly common criticism against the studio responsible), there are also two version of the later 2000 dub, one of which is identified as “family friendly” and slightly edits the dub to contain less swearing.
As a funny aside: when Castle of Cagliostro was initially dubbed into English, the original Arsène Lupin books were still under copyright in America, so they couldn’t actually call him “Lupin”. They got around it by having “Wolf” be his master thief alias, ‘Lupin’ being derived from the French word for ‘wolf.’
All in all, it’s pretty distracting that a Lupin III movie never actually utters the word “Lupin”…
The 2000 dub is probably the better version — both in terms of acting and translation — though it features none of the English actors who currently voice the characters. I’ve only watched the family friendly version of this dub, so I can’t speak to how much more profanity is in the unedited version of that dub.
Though, scanning the IMDB write-up, you’ll probably hear worse in a Marvel movie.
And Miyazaki did apparently tone down Lupin’s more ruthless amoral characteristics established in the series’ run up to the that point, so Castle of Cagliostro is still overall likely one of the less mature entries in the series.
Anyway, back to Castle of Cagliostro.
Look, it’s a Miyazaki movie — though not a Ghibli movie (Ghibli wasn’t founded until 1985) — of course the animation is good. The movie’s more than forty years old, and I’m impressed by how well the art was held. I’ve seen more recent cartoons that have aged worse than this.
As it happens, Castle of Cagliostro failed at the box office initially and only came to be regarded as a classic with the benefit of hindsight.
Remember, Lupin III‘s been around since 1967 and Castle of Cagliostro came out in 1979, meaning there was plenty of time for Japanese audiences to have a sense of what Lupin was supposed to be like.
Like I said, Miyazaki toned down the more selfish and ruthless parts of his personality to make him more Han Solo or Robin Hood-esque. Audiences weren’t initially into such a character change.
Though, again, with the benefit of hindsight, Castle of Cagliostro Lupin has pretty much become the recogniseable version of the character.
In terms of the plot, it all starts with Lupin and Jigen having just pulled off a heist at a casino only to discover all the money is counterfeit. This leads them to the source of the counterfeits, the Grand Duchy of Cagliostro — a fictional microstate not entirely unlike real-world San Marino (which, incidentally, plays a sizeable role in one of the more recent Lupin animes).
Things go a little sideways when they rescue Clarisse, the princess of Cagliostro, who is running away from Count Cagliostro who is trying to force her to marry him in order to reunite the two branches of the family in order to attain the two Cagliostro signet rings necessary to unlock the family’s ancient treasure.
From there, it’s basically a heist movie.
Except instead of trying to break into the castle, Lupin is essentially trying to break Clarisse out.
Things are complicated by the fact that the Count is running the counterfeiting operation, while Fujiko is trying to run her own heist, while Zenigata is concurrently trying to pursue Lupin, stop the counterfeiting, and, at least initially, provide protection for the Count’s wedding ceremony which at first appears entirely above board and legitimate.
Though, what with the counterfeiting and the Count generally kinda being a jerk, that doesn’t last very long…
Things climax with a fight between Lupin and the Count through the castle’s clock tower, culminating with a showdown on the clock’s face and moving hands. That scene in particular has been very influential, and it’s not hard to see why.
So, yeah, admittedly, there’s a tenuous at best connection to Realmgard, but Castle of Cagliostro is a good movie on its own merits, and it is pretty interesting to talk about as a historically-notable and influential work of anime.
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman. Revised and expanded 2023.
Adapted from a post originally written 2021.
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