Hayao Miyazaki’s career began even before the founding of Studio Ghibli, with the peculiar 1979 caper flick The Castle of Cagliostro, an outlier in the Lupin III series unique to Miyazaki’s sensibilities and indicative of the influential filmography he would go on to spawn. It remains a thrilling and idiosyncratic take on Monkey Punch’s original manga and the rare case of a filmmaker so thoroughly imparting his authorial voice on a franchise work as to have it transcend all other takes.

The Castle of Cagliostro follows Lupin (Yasuo Yamada), a gentleman thief, and his partner-in-crime Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi), as they embark on a mysterious adventure after pulling a major heist that yielded them a carload of masterfully forged money. While other versions of Lupin in animation hew more to the character’s original styling as something of a scoundrel, Miyazaki and co-writer Haruya Yamazaki quietly reimagine the hero as a charming, easygoing and swashbuckling type.

There’s a buoyancy to his animated presence perfectly telegraphed in the film’s opening sequence. As Lupin and Jigen spirit away with their ill-gotten gains, a small army of cars gives chase. But their hot pursuit grinds to a halt as each of the cars has been previously dismantled or otherwise sabotaged, leading to a hilarious demolition derby in our heroes’ wake.

Everything about this opening salvo, from the staging, to the framing, to the ebullient sense of movement all feel like the perfect coming out moment for Miyazaki as a director of animated films. The film intersperses such carefully composed set pieces throughout the plot, each isolated sequence its own masterful movie in miniature, keeping all the film’s dually playful and harrowing tone in line with Lupin’s doubled nature as a harmless romantic and a cunning criminal.

At its core, a globetrotting film noir might not sound like the beginning of the Miyazaki legacy, but Cagliostro’s central heist is miles away from the cash grab of the film’s prologue. Ultimately, Lupin is chasing down a princess (Sumi Shimamoto) set to be married off to the Count of Cagliostro (Tarō Ishida), a nefarious villain trying to merge two kingdoms for his own gain. It works so well because it takes the stylish conman perpetually on the run from the intrepid Inspector Zenigata (Gorō Naya) out of his usual caper setting and drops him into a fairy tale.

Within that fairy tale, setting up a heist in a massive castle and casting his thief as a knight rescuing Princess Clarisse allows for well-worn tropes from both genres to be sent up in unison. Miyazaki executes these bonded story beats with absolute aplomb, resulting in a film that bounces along at the perfect pace, punctuated with verve by Yuji Ohno’s jazzy, nimble score. It’s a sweet-natured, simple enough premise brought to life with technique and vision far beyond any other Lupin project. It’s no surprise that the film’s mirthful machinations proved such an influence on so many future animators, or that it would spark the beginning of such an auspicious legacy.

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