He is the grandson of a notorious French gentleman thief, but Arsène Lupin III (“The Wolf”) has been a Japanese pop culture icon for years. His own presumably mixed ancestry is always kept a little vague, but his known associate Goemon Ishikawa XIII, thirteenth generation descendant of the Samurai Robin Hood, is as Japanese as it gets. Lupin and his Javier-like nemesis, Inspector Koichi Zenigata (a distant relative of Edo-era detective Zenigata Heiji) had been globe-trotting in manga, anime, and live-action films since 1967, but Hayao Miyazaki got his shot at the franchise in 1979. His first full feature was not a hit during its initial release, but it became a fan favorite soon thereafter. To celebrate Lupin’s 50th anniversary, Miyazaki’s Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Caliostro (trailer here) screens two nights as a special presentation of Fathom Events and Eleven Arts.
How frustrating is it for Lupin and his loyal henchman Daisuke Jigen to knock over the National Casino of Monaco, only to find the gambling palace had been duped into taking huge quantities of high quality “goat bill” forgeries? Actually, they rather take it in stride, but Lupin still decides to take down the source of the got bills anyway. Evidently, the tiny European principality of Cagliostro’s nefarious counterfeiting enterprise is an open secret in the underworld.
As fate would have it, Lupin nurses a grudge against the criminal state from his early years as a thief, so it is time for some payback. However, his grudge does not include the rightful heir, Princess Clarisse, who will be forced to marry the usurping regent, Count Cagliostro. Suddenly, their grubby caper becomes a mission of righteousness, so Lupin will call in the taciturn Goemon. Fortunately, his on-again-off-again lover and rival Fujiko Mine already happens to be undercover at the castle. Lupin will even lure Zenigata to the party, to use him as a distraction and perhaps even forge a temporary alliance.
Miyazki and co-screenwriter Haruya Yamazaki present a kinder, gentler Lupin, but they do not skimp on the action. According to urban legend, the film’s car chase sequences had a formative effect on Steven Spielberg. Regardless, the pacing is always pleasingly peppy. This was not a world a Miyazaki’s creating, so it is hardly surprising it lacks the lushness and fantastical elements of his best loved films. However, he still has some rather spiffy visuals. In fact, many of the exterior scenes set around the castle’s perilously high turrets bring to mind Paul Grimault’s finally completed and restored The King and the Mockingbird.
Obviously, Miyazaki had talent if he could portray Lupin as a sentimental softie yet still make his creator, manga artist Monkey Punch relatively okay with the results. You can see flashes of the artistry that would fully flower with the masterworks he produced at Studio Ghibli, but mostly this is just a roller coaster, but with lots of guns (how refreshingly un-PC). Very highly recommended, Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro screens this Thursday (9/14) dubbed and the following Tuesday (9/19) subtitled at participating theaters nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York.