Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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When master thief Lupin III, a.k.a. “The Wolf” inadvertently steals a fortune in counterfeit bills from a casino, he is quick to realize the high-quality printing plates that made them are worth even more. Tracing the source of the money to the small European country of Cagliostro, Lupin and his team of colorful outlaws cross swords with the nation’s mysterious monarch over his forthcoming marriage to the last princess of the Cagliostro family. It’s a fast-paced adventure as Lupin must battle fearsome ninjas, rescue a damsel in distress and uncover the key to the lost Cagliostro fortune.

With the release of Castle of Cagliostro, we see the ascension and transformation of Hayao Miyazaki from contributing animator to that of director, a role that would later establish him as one of the premier talents within Japanese animation. Previously contributing his talent primarily within the realm of television, Miyazaki and fellow collaborator Isao Takahata had work on the television series of Lupin III before the inception of Castle of Cagliostro. Quite the difficult route for any new director given that the film’s characters were already established beforehand, Miyazaki was still given certain artistic freedom concerning the construction of the film’s storyline, which he elaborates upon to include many familiar elements of the source material as well as his own style. Many distinguishing traits of Miyazaki find their way into Castle of Cagliostro, traits which would later be seen throughout his works. But while the characters were already well renowned given the popularity of the franchise, Miyazaki had much to live up to as a new director handling such a popular series—a risk that could’ve proven disastrous for his career if he was unfaithful to the likeliness of Kazuhiko Kato’s original manga.

Fortunately for Miyazaki, what comes to fruition is a fantastic combination that merrily celebrates its source material, but also remains distinctively his own creation throughout. Seemingly confident in his direction, Miyazaki had previously showcased his skills primarily within the confinement of television series, where often times restraint and monetary issues collided with the creational process. And given that Castle of Cagliostro is an animated feature film, the substantial increase in budgetary expenses and elevated production values gave Miyazaki considerable leeway to shape the film to his own liking—as well as allow him to creatively re-envision the Lupin III universe. While some might find themselves disappointed with Miyazaki’s handling of the protagonist Lupin—wherein the manga version portrayed him as a rather rambunctious and lascivious individual—here we view him as an adventurous hero always getting himself into one hilariously harrowing situation after another, always narrowly avoiding danger, but perhaps more surprisingly, carrying a sense of moral principles that repeatedly come up throughout the film. What we find here is a nobler Lupin, viewed as one who fights for justice—while still remaining the one always looking for treasure and fortune. Similar to Lupin, the remainder of the cast is just as colorful, eliciting some distinct qualities that make their interaction between one another enjoyable to watch.

Where Castle of Cagliostro truly succeeds is its ability to entertain on a visceral and situational level. Similar to the manga and television series, the film is filled with moments of adventurous escapades and relentless action, all enveloped within a comical flair. Those accustomed to Kato’s original manga might find the decision to focus predominantly on a few select characters over others rather disappointing, but Miyazaki elicits significant character development with the likes of Lupin, Caglisotro, Clarisse, all who lie at the heart of the film’s story. While supporting characters are simplistic in nature—which is something Miyazaki would move away from in his later films—but they are viewed as more accessible because so. The background information concerning these characters and their histories remain at the backdrop, only utilized to reinforce the position of the film’s story. While one may not be familiar with any of the characters going into the film, the premise is comfortably laid out in such a way where one could easily become acquainted with them through their amusing episodes.

This in itself creates somewhat of balance that harkens back to the tried-and-true formula of saving the princess from peril, which Miyazaki wonderfully recreates to fit within the context of the Lupin III universe. Given the amusing antics offered up by the source material, this adherence towards an archetypical plot setting is not something that easily becomes weary and repetitive, like one might expect considering the structure of the narrative. Rather, the film is surprisingly entertaining on multiple fronts, in effect transcending the rigid boundaries that are often times associated with the action-adventure genre. Understanding the strength of the source material, Miyazaki constructs the film in a manner that propels its story from one exciting set piece to next, each time building up their grandiosity. There are some beautifully animated sequences throughout the film that particularly stand out, including an exhilarating opening chase scene and a climatic battle within the internal workings of an ancient clock tower, all which showcase fantastic visual finesse as well as creativity.

An extension of this quality can also be seen within the setting of the film itself. Miyazaki crafts an appreciable fantasy world, where ancient European architecture and imagination merge to creative a beautiful paradise. Constructing a perfectly envisioned environment was something not entirely new to the Lupin III universe—where Kato’s fondness for exotic settings within Lupin was already customary—but Miyazaki skillfully crafts a world that can easily exist between reality and fantasy, with both equally becoming important elements to the film. Miyazaki would incorporate various European elements within his later films—Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle to be more exact—but here we see Miyazaki completely enveloping the film’s characters into an unfamiliar world, but is also one not too detached from our very own. The film seemingly warrants a combination of Kato’s creation and Miyazaki inventiveness in this regard, in turn having Miyazaki create a world outside the ordinary, but still remaining faithful to Kato’s original vision.

Overall, Castle of Cagliostro is an audaciously vibrant and humorous film from then first-time director Hayao Miyazaki. Its visionary world perfectly captures the essence of Miyazaki’s talent, but the film also remains relatively faithful to Kato’s style, therein creating a work that stands above many action-adventure films—live or animated. As this was Miyazaki’s directorial debut, it’s surprisingly one of his most accessible films as well, serving as a fantastic introductory work to the man and his career. One could see the appreciation of the source material by his careful treatment of it, never fully allowing his own full vision to repeal that of Kato’s established characters and world. With this fusion of talent at the helm, the results are a highly imaginative piece that incorporates elements that support both Miyazaki and Kato each in their respective vision. Those looking for a film filled with humorous antics, thrilling chases, delightful characters, and magnificent traditional animation, look no further. There’s not many times where one finds an animated film that can still be enjoyable years after its release, but Castle of Cagliostro is a testament that despite age, true artistic craftsmanship never fades.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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  • Jon Turner

    Oh man, I REALLY love this movie! I actually saw this when Manga Entertainment was putting out its VHS release back in 2000. It’s a lot of fun, fresh, funny, fast-paced, and very clever. BTW, did you know there were two different English dubs to this movie? The first was done by Streamline, but the second, by AniMaze, was released by Manga Entertainment. I’ve only seen the latter dub, but I really loved it in spite of the sometimes overdone profanity.

  • Miguel Douglas

    I’ve read that there were two versions of the English dub, but I believe I’ve only seen the AniMaze version–if I’ve seen the first one, it was on VHS a long time ago and I don’t really remember watching it. But yeah, didn’t the profanity disappoint a lot of people thinking this was a kids film?

  • Jon Turner

    I don’t really remember if there were people who objected or not, but that is my only quibble of the AniMaze version. I felt the cursing was unnecessary for a movie that’s more lighthearted and fun. Still, it was executed very well overall and I eventually overlooked that.

  • Jin

    I love this movie so much. I saw it for free at a anime screening at the University of Michigan as a elementary school student. It was a double feature paired with the equally great, but painfully sad “Grave of the Fireflies”. This was the second film, which was a smart choice being a nice light-hearted comedy to help stifle the tears induced by first.