Lupin III, Studio Ghibli, and Hayao Miyazaki are all names with reputations that precede them. Monkey Punch’s original series has spawned countless adaptations, recently even becoming an attraction at Universal Studios Japan. Studio Ghibli has also become a pillar of Japanese pop culture, gaining international recognition along the way. Hayao Miyazaki needs almost no introduction: as one of the co-founders of Studio Ghibli, he has cemented for himself a reputation as both a creative and a force for change in the industry. Yet, all legends have their beginning. Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro can be seen as precisely this.
Released in 1979, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro was almost certainly not the first Lupin III adaptation. That accolade goes to 1971’s Lupin III, now commonly referred to as Part I. It wasn’t even the series’ first feature film: that accolade goes to 1978’s The Mystery of Mamo (also known as Lupin vs. The Clone), which isn’t exactly universally beloved by fans.
Nevertheless, it was the first time that one Hayao Miyazaki had ever stepped up to the plate as the director of a feature film – having worked previously alongside future Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata on such projects as World Masterpiece Theater, his future as one of anime’s most celebrated directors started here.
For a feature film debut, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro is astoundingly polished. Sure, Miyazaki had worked on several TV series and short OVAs before Cagilostro, but his command of the cinematic medium here is something to behold. Particularly worth highlighting is the quality of the script, which does not engage in any superfluous dialogue or action – instead, every single moment is well-utilized, giving birth to a cinematic masterpiece that can be enjoyed over and over again.
Of course, it was not Miyazaki alone that produced such a success. Indeed, he wrote the script alongside Haruya Yamazaki, as well as relied on the talent and hard work of hundreds, if not thousands of animators, in-between artists, and other production staff.
Yet, there is a clear similarity between Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro and Miyazaki’s later, original works: screenplay aside, this can be most keenly seen in the film’s animation and visual style. Miyazaki’s eye for detail is on full display here, and the vistas that he paints of the fictional micronation of Cagliostro are a dead ringer for those found in later films.
Even so, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro occupies a strange place in the Studio Ghibli canon: some fans consider it as part of the studio’s repertoire, while some don’t. This is because it is not an original work. Yet, neither is The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and neither is Only Yesterday – you’ll discover, in fact, that quite a lot of the studio’s output over the years has been based on novels or manga once you look into it.
So, is the criteria then that it be produced by the studio itself? But then you’re discounting Nausicaa, which many consider to be the first Ghibli film. It certainly blazed a trail and led directly into the founding of the studio in 1985.
In any case, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro stands as an excellent feature in its own right. Regardless of its place in the Studio Ghibli canon, it also acts as the perfect gateway into the Lupin III series as a whole. Not only is it just over an hour and a half long, it also removes many of Monkey Punch’s eccentricities that might make it otherwise inaccessible to a mainstream audience.
More specifically, Miyazaki’s version of Lupin in this film is a lot more family-friendly than other adaptations; his conception of Lupin as a “gentleman thief” can be grasped readily in the subplot regarding the protagonist and the princess, Clarissa.
Even so, there is no debate among Lupin III fans that this is an excellent rendition of Lupin. Even though it is very different from previous and subsequent adaptations, it is the entry that is recommended the most along with 2012’s The Woman Called Fujiko Mine and the 2015 revival series, The Italian Adventure. That speaks to the versatility of Monkey Punch’s iconic character, as well as its role as an incubator for the best talent in the industry: just as Fujiko Mine nurtured the careers of Sayo Yamamoto, Mari Okada, and others, so too did The Castle of Cagliostro nurture that of Miyazaki.
To conclude, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro is not just a useful touchstone for the development and eventual founding of Studio Ghibli, it is also an excellent entry point for the long-running franchise and an incredible piece of work in its own right. This film wasn’t what originally got me into Lupin – that accolade goes to The Italian Adventure – but I certainly never get tired of watching it whenever I want some good entertainment. ‘Fire Treasure’ from Yuji Ohno’s iconic soundtrack also never fails to make me melancholic for a time that never was.
You can watch Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro via Netflix.