A few weeks ago, a trailer for the new, incredible-looking 3D animated Lupin III movie came out. “It’s not really for Gizmodo,” I admitted to my editor and constantly-put-upon boss, Jill, as I frothed about how good it looked. “I love Lupin, but it’s not the kind of genre we cover.” Lupin III, of course, is about heists and thieves, not space or fantasy.
As you’re probably aware from the fact that the trailer has a blog on this very website you’re reading, I was allowed to get away with this particular indulgence. And that’s despite the simple fact that Lupin III isn’t really “genre,” that wonderfully vague word that has come to encompass everything from swords and sorcery, to superheroes, to cyberpunk, and anything and everything in between.
Lupin III is about daring heists and gentlemen thieves, wacky action capers but not anything as particularly wacky as going so far into the realm of the fantastical. I’ve been watching and loving the various anime series and reading Monkey Punch’s manga since I was a kid, but as far as writing about it on Gizmodo, I’d consigned myself to it never happening outside of the series pulling a maybe-Fast & Furious and eventually catapulting it to space. Or maybe blogging that time Lupin Stole Some Bitcoin for the tech angle.
But all the excitement for that Lupin III The First trailer lead to me re-watching what is one of the most beloved Lupin stories of all time recently, The Castle of Cagliostro — not just best known as one of the better animated takes on the character, but as anime legend Hayao Miyazaki’s feature film debut, after having directed multiple episodes of the Lupin III Part II — and I realised something.
The Castle of Cagliostro is actually a fantasy film. Hear me out.
It’s not like elves suddenly show up or people start casting magic, although Cagliostro does feature some weird, barely-explained, creepy as hell henchmen who sneak about like boneless ninjas for a good chunk of the film that wouldn’t feel out of place in your next D&D campaign.
Cagliostro is still Lupin, which means it is primarily a heist film. The titular thief and his partner in crime Jigen find themselves robbing a casino full of counterfeit bills that — exactly one of the best car chases in animated film history later — eventually leads them to the titular duchy of Cagliostro. They then get wrapped up in liberating Clarisse, the unwilling bride-to-be of the region’s count, and also exposing the counterfeit bill operation said count is running.
That it happens to take place in a castle that would not look out of place in a Castlevania game or that Lupin’s “treasure” to steal is a woman who is, it turns out, a noble princess of an important bloodline isn’t what makes Castle of Cagliostro a fantasy movie. Instead, Cagliostro is a fantasy movie in that it is really engaged in an absurd surreality, one that requires us to believe in the power of the genre, the romanticism of it, for any of its conceit to actually work.
There is a scene about a third of the way into Castle of Cagliostro where, having snuck into the castle, Lupin finally encounters Clarisse after witnessing her capture and return to the highest spire of Count Cagliostro’s abode. While making his pitch that he wants to rescue her, a dismayed Clarisse despairs that the Cagliostro family is too dangerous for her to believe her freedom can be gained.
Lupin counters with a request: that she believe in the fantasy of a brave hero coming to rescue a trapped princess from an evil sorcerer’s clutches. Because, if she can believe that the Count is so powerful as to keep her detained, why not believe that a legendary thief out of fable and legend, with magical powers and mythical skills, could swoop in and rescue her? If only Clarisse could believe in that fantasy, Lupin argues, he could defy the impossible odds and rescue her.
Lupin isn’t a fantasy hero. He’s very good at what he does — as the descendant of the legendary Arsene Lupin, it’s in his blood to be a master thief. But he is still just a human being who can’t, as he suggests if Clarisse believes in the fantasy he projects, fly into the sky or drink the lake surrounding the castle clean dry. And yet, even as Count Cagliostro interrupts his full-on charm offensive to Clarisse, he keeps reassuring her — everything will be fine, as long as she believes in the grand fantasy of a legendary phantom thief.
It’s a question he asks of the audience, too, because from that point on — as Lupin battles to liberate Clarisse, avoid the ever-watchful eye of Inspector Zenigata, and also expose the Count’s counterfeit operation — Castle of Cagliostro actually does get full-on bonkers.
Lupin defies death time and time again, at one point getting shot in the chest only to be fine after a few day’s rest and eating a copious amount of meat and cheese. In another zany moment, as he scales the castle walls for a second time, a slip up with his grappling hook sees him barrel down one side of the castle’s roof and make a truly impossible leap, bounding into the air like a bronze age Superman.
It’s not just Lupin, either. From the moment he makes his pitch to Clarisse, everything becomes a surreal tale of heroes and villains. The Count’s plans to marry Clarisse and tie their bloodlines together — so that he can unlock the secrets of what is revealed to be increasingly-outlandishly-designed crypts of the castle for himself — indeed begins to look more and more like the foul machinations of an evil sorcerer, right down to some disconcerting looking, sword-armed cultists showing up for the ceremony.
There are those aforementioned guards, chittering around like goblin-esque mooks as they engage in a battle with Lupin’s other comrade in arms, the wandering swordsman Goemon — who, by the way, just so happens to wield the legendary blade Zantetsuken, capable of cutting anything in two with a single strike.
As Castle of Cagliostro builds to its climax, and the castle is set upon not just by Lupin’s attempts to liberate Clarisse, but Zenigata and his fellow Interpol agents basically besieging the castle to expose the shady business of the Count’s counterfeit operation mid-internationally-televised-broadcast of his wedding to Clarisse, everything reaches a point of absurdity that you simply have to accept that you’re watching something that isn’t grounded in realism, but instead fantasy, unfold.
It becomes, just like Lupin said to Clarisse earlier on, a case of belief: without the power of it, none of the movie works. You have to accept the fantasy of Castle of Cagliostro for Lupin actually saving the day, rescuing the girl, and defeating the villain to not just be a complete mess of illogical narrative leaps.
There might not actually be any spell flinging or mystical monsters, no outlandish realms or supernatural beings to be found in Castle of Cagliostro. It’s not exactly Lord of the Rings but with a thief for a protagonist (although, I guess that’s technically called The Hobbit?).
But it is, at a fundamental level, a movie that truly loves the idea of Fantasy as a concept — that earnestly believes in its power, both as a romanticised ideal and as a storytelling tool. Cagliostro becomes fantastical by asking us to open our hearts and minds to the idea of it being fantastical, instead of just another adventure for Lupin and his crew. It makes the ordinary extraordinary in the process.
It’s an idea that Miyazaki, of course, would go on to continually interrogate across his career as one of the most legendary directors of his field. In many ways, Castle of Cagliostro represents a blueprint for a career that saw him navigate fantasy in ways more literal than Cagliostro’s love letter to the genre, giving us the wonderful worlds of movies like Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away, or myriad other clashes of the absurd and the real in his later works.
By embracing it as a fantastical adventure as Lupin asks of us, it becomes clear that Miyazaki’s fascination with fantasy was there from the very beginning — even in his weird, wonderful movie about a cocky thief and a quest to uncover some shady banknotes.