Fox decides that "Crooks"
is a much better
TV series than "Cops."
By the time you read this, Hayao Miyazaki may no longer be the best-kept secret in the movie business. As of this writing his latest film, Spirited Away, is about to open wide in the U.S. theaters where it will get the big test: will it be nearly as popular here as it was in its native Japan? There, it was the first film ever to gross $200 million at the box office before premiering in the States. It also toppled Titanic and Miyazaki's last movie, Princess Mononoke, as the highest-grossing pictures ever to play in Japan. Why is Miyazaki so popular in his home country, and why is he so ardently beloved by those Americans who have discovered his films? It may be because this eccentric animator is a master craftsman in telling the kinds of stories that Hollywood invented, but since has all but forgotten how to make.
Take, for instance, the spy thriller. Today's cloak-and-dagger flicks are little more than commercials for automobiles and cell phones, with lots of explosions and machismo thrown in to distract viewers from the fact that the screenplay was seemingly written on set. Even by the time The Castle of Cagliostro was made, things in the James Bond camp had gotten so silly that 007 resorted to saving the world from outer space. Miyazaki, on the other hand, adopted Lupin III, a popular comic book rogue, and returned to viewers the joy of the car chase, the thrill of cat burglary, and the swashbuckling romance of rescuing a damsel in distress.
The Fashion Patrol sends its
ninja hordes after Lupin's jacket.
Lupin III is a master thief and all-around gentleman who tools around Europe in a tiny car with his heavily-armed partner Jingen, looking for rich (and hopefully bad) people to rob. After the successful burglary of a casino Lupin discovers the loot to be counterfeit bills. Moreover, they're the legendary "goat bills," frauds so good they're nearly impossible to tell form the real thing. You would think Lupin could just spend them like the real thing, but no, he tosses them out of the car's sun roof and decides to solve the mystery of the bills' origin. It is well known that the bills come from the small country of Cagliostro, but everyone who goes looking for their exact source disappears without a trace. Lupin is nothing if not supremely self-confident, so he just drives right on into a country where he has no right to be.
Cagliostro turns out to be nestled in Miyazaki country, with huge fluffy white clouds casting beautiful shadows over greener-than-green fields and clear blue lakes. If you've seen a couple of Miyazaki films you know what we mean. No sooner has Lupin driven into the country with Jingen than they are passed on the road by distressed young woman wearing a wedding dress. She is being chased by a carload of guys in black suits. While we assumed it was merely the passing of a No Doubt video, Lupin gives chase because that's the kind of good deed he does when he's not stealing. The chase scene is a masterpiece, and was used in the old laserdisc game Cliffhanger.
"Go ahead. Make fun of my
lavender cravat again."
While Lupin is able to rescue the lady, his victory is short-lived, thanks to a Looney Toon-esque accident with a tree limb that knocks Lupin out and allows the goons to retake the lady. The situation soon becomes clear. The woman in distress is Clarisse, a member of one branch of the Cagliostro dynasty, who is being forced to marry the evil Count of Cagliostro. (He's from a different branch of the family, so kids who look like the British royal family are not going to be a problem.) The Count is actually after a ring that Clarisse received from her family, which points the way to a fabulous treasure. If this sounds like Laputa: Castle in the Sky to you, get ready from some serious déjà vu at the end of the film.
Lupin decides to rescue Clarisse, and all that stands in his way is her ensconcement in the impenetrable north tower of the Count's huge castle. Also in Lupin's way is the Count's force of royal guards. And the Count's force of oddly European ninja assassins. Oh, and did we mention that Lupin's chief Japanese nemesis, Inspector Zenigata, has somehow arranged for his jurisdiction to be extended halfway around the world?
"I got it at Epcot."
Before the movie is over we are treated to gun battles, swordfights, derring-do involving an autogyro, chases through the castle's flooded catacombs, and a duel in a clock tower. Lupin's infiltration of the castle through its aqueduct (protected by laser-wielding robots!) is a particularly playful sequence. All of this action is directed by Miyazaki with verve and creativity, and it rivals even the best live action movie. Miyazaki, being Miyazaki, intersperses the action scenes with quiet moments of contemplation and sweetness, though there's a lot more action here than in My Neighbor Totoro, or even Mononoke.
Lupin discovers that his pals
have replaced his regular
monofilament with fishing line.
The tone is also the lightest you'll ever see in a Miyazaki film. Even in movies made for kids like Totoro or Kiki's Delivery Service, there is a good bit of seriousness and uncertainty felt by the characters. Lupin, however, is so casually self-confident that even Miyazaki is infected with his cheer. One might expect a scene in a dungeon with hundreds of corpses littered about to be quite grisly, but here Miyazaki plays it for laughs. We suspect that, just as Lupin would never be pinned down in marriage, any concession to fear or self-doubt is simply unthinkable. In that, he's a lot like James Bond or at least, how James Bond used to be.
Miyazaki fans looking for the same sense of wonder evident in Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro may not find it here; after all, this is the director's work at the beginning of his journey. Still, there are a few moments, particularly towards the movie's end, that give glimpses of the amazing work yet to come. The Castle of Cagliostro has moments that will make you gasp, laugh, and just plain grin a silly grin. It is rare to encounter such supreme entertainment.