Friday, January 6, 2012

Revenge of Netflix-a-thon (# 3) - Hayao Miyazaki's LUPIN THE THIRD: THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO

(One of the fantastic things with Netflix-a-thon is to finally see some of those films by the master directors that I've yet to see, whether they're really good or not good at all it's a chance to see stuff that I might either pass up or just not get to in due time.  So, here's another):

Every filmmaker has to start somewhere, and most of the great directors end up starting with a crime movie, sometimes involving a heist or just the crime world in general.  Hayao Miyazaki had this as well, though probably not on purpose - he worked for many years as an animator in television, directing some TV and writing a lot too (including the is-this-really-titled Panda! Go Panda!)  He was brought onto Lupin III - The Castle of Cagliostro (also called 'Rupin' in Japan) after another director was let go, and the script had to actually be written in large part during post-production.  While Miyazaki would later be dismissive of the film due to not having as much creative control as he would over, well, the rest of his career at Studio Ghibli, this is a film of sheer explosive entertainment, a romp-heist-spectacle that has a lovable rapscallion as the (anti?)hero and a bevy of conventional stock characters right in place.

Two bandits, Lupin and his partner Jigen, have made a big score at a casino that's a bust due to it all being counterfeit currency.  But then a chance encounter in one of those chase scenes (the kind that takes place on winding roads by a seaside cliff and has to have some beaty-type music on the soundtrack) gives Lupin an idea - the castle of Cagliostro, which is the place where the counterfeit money is made, and where a secret treasure is being hidden.  It's through this, and the MacGuffin of two rings (one that is held by one of those mustache-twirling villains that's played up for a reasonable amount of worth, and the other by the 'princess' of the story, sort of, in the form of a Bride), and being chased by one of those blustering but semi-competent Interpol agents, that the story takes some strong shape.

But it's really how it's all presented, through the story and how sequences are executed and the voice actors (yes, even in the English voice dubbing, which apparently changed some of Miyazaki's intent with a little light cursing) that makes a difference.  To be clear, this is not the polished masterpiece-theater anime that made Miyazaki the dubious honor of being called "The Disney of Japan" - this is more like the animation of the 70's and TV especially, which is kind of rough and crude and gritty, like a teenager's idea of anime.  That it suits the material so well may just be a coincidence but a beautiful one: this is the stuff of pulp, where a character is funny and weird and charismatic and yet has some integrity when up against a villain like the one here.

I mean, for real dawg, you got a mustache, you gotta twirl that shit every day!

The chases are not too fast and not too slow; when it comes time for a showdown in a dark and gray interior with lots of wheels spinning, Miyazaki knows how to stage his players and still make it fun.  And at other times when drama has to be ramped up, like when Lupin gets injured at a critical moment, it is genuinely suspenseful since the stakes for this seemingly impenetrable character have been raised.  Like Spielberg with his best Indiana Jones work (and not surprisingly Spielberg called it one of the best adventure films, period), Miyazaki pours all of his know-how of staging action and suspense, while not forgetting that this character is a driving force that all the other characters have to act or re-act to, be they the Interpol agent or a hired samurai -fighter who is brought in by Lupin and Jigen to fight any of the rampant ninjas or others out to get them at the castle.

Just watch how Lupin gets in to the castle the first time in the film to see how brilliant some of this storytelling/timing is, plus how just goddamn funny it is as well - one might think there could be a touch of Sherlock Holmes to how Lupin sneaks around and fakes people out (though maybe without the mystery-intellect to him).  The surprises keep mounting in that whole sequence that it becomes one of the big set pieces of the film (at least for me), and it's not even up to when Lupin gets to the castle itself to save the Bride (who is, I should admit, kind of a bland goody-too-shoes character, but has her moments in the film too).  If it all seems 'cartoonish', that's by design and by default, but the film can still be cherished/admired as that kind of product.

Wall Street called, they want their mascot back.

I should also mention the film is based/a spin-off of a popular TV series from Japan where Lupin III went on a whole bunch of adventures.  I'm not sure where this is placed in, or how it is in relation to that show, since I've never watched it and don't have the time now.  The genius and wonderful quality of The Castle of Cagliostro is that not much has to be explained with the set-up and characters; there is some background between Lupin and the Interpol guy, and it's clear as day what it is so what is there is perfectly fine.

And it's a kind of self-contained narrative that opens with a BANG following that casino heist (not seen, but not needed as the two criminals make off with their money in the car driving fast and laughing their heads off), and then ends with the same thing of cars driving off into a landscape.  There will be more adventures, but for now here's one worthy of a character like Lupin III, who is really like a touch of Holmes with Bugs Bunny, and of the talents of this natural-born-director.

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