The Knight Errant: Lupin III in Cagliostro
Recently Hayao Miyazaki’s first film received its first U.S. theatrical release nationwide, compliments of Fathom events. Only its been 38 years since its initial release in Japan. Why this film hasn’t received a huge U.S. premiere before is beyond me, but I am very thankful to everyone involved in its release now (including Pixar’s head honcho John Lasseter-sama). Much has been said about its elegiac compositions and sumptuous photography, its frenetic chase scene, dynamic fight scenes, erratic and innovative shot compositions, and the final unveiling of the true Cagliostro treasure. This is all well and proper, these things make the film a standout in Japanese animation as the greatest animated action film ever released and among anime’s top ten most beautiful films.
What I’ve not read much about is the narrative, the story, its complexity, and how it dons specific genre codes and subverts them. How it is at once both a tale of a Knight Errant Siegfried and a Knight Errant Quixote-Jester. Just what I mean by this will become apparent in this essay and should become more obvious (and may already be) upon reviewing. So without further ado here goes something.
Lupin III is the grandson of the famous french cat burglar Arsene Lupin. And he has followed in his footsteps. Along with his friends Jigen, the world’s greatest sharpshooter; Goemon, the world’s greatest swordsman; and Fujiko, one of the world’s greatest criminal minds, Lupin travels the world in search of adventure, money, and women.
In this film, Lupin and Jigen have just made a big heist and retrieved a ton of unmarked bills. But they are all fakes. The level of counterfeiting is so advanced that Jigen and Lupin decide to seek out their source. Through following various leads, they discover that the bills come from the Duchy of Cagliostro, a small European nation with less than three thousand inhabitants. The Duchy’s political system is monarchical and the Duke of Cagliostro used to rule the land with a certain ease and beneficence (despite the illegal counterfeiting operation at the core of the country’s economic prosperity). However, seven years ago, the Castle of Cagliostro was razed to the ground, killing the Duke and Duchess, and leaving only their young daughter, Lady Clarisse, as heiress. While Lady Clarisse took education at a convent, the country was ruled by Count Cagliostro as regent.
The Count’s line have traditionally been assassins, as well as the ones in charge of the counterfeiting. But now, seeing his chance, Count Cagliostro plans to force Clarisse to marry him, become both Count and Duke of Cagliostro, and unite the family’s heirlooms- two signet rings (one held by the Duke’s line and one by the Count’s)- to fulfill an age-old prophecy: “When light and shadow are joined together. It will be restored.” Meaning, he thinks, that the great lost treasure of the Cagliostro’s will be his for the taking. To ensure this occurs, he has removed Clarisse from the convent on the eve of her birthday and prepared her for marriage. A prospect she is not all that fond about.
So now, enter Lupin. The stage is set. A small European nation with an enchanting, almost magical quality and beauty comprising its aura, adorned with rolling hills, sky blue lakes, and castles. The players have arrived. A deposed King and Queen, the evil usurper of the throne, an imperiled young princess, and the Knight Errant: Lupin III.
Lupin and Jigen are driving through the countryside of Cagliostro, when a young girl’s car approaches and speeds past their own on a narrow, mountainous pass. A group of thugs in what looks to be a Citroen pass next, in hot pursuit of the girl. Lupin, intrigued by her beauty, jumps into action, chases after the men, and with Jigen’s help, dispatches their vehicle, thereby saving the girl, who turns out to be (you guessed it) the princess. But she has fallen asleep at the wheel! Lupin switches cars in mid-stream, as it were, and stops her car from colliding with the mountainside, only to fall off the adjacent cliff. He pads her fall with his body and is knocked unconscious as a result. All the while, the princess is captured by another group of men patrolling in a tug boat near the shore.
Lupin will awaken with her signet ring in his pocket. He now holds the key to the whole puzzle. He reflects back on a time in his youth when he tried to raid the castle of the Duke of Cagliostro. He failed and was injured whilst making his escape, but managed to find a secluded spot in a nearby wooded area to hide. Clarisse, then just a young girl, found him there and nursed him back to health. Now the knight errant, the wandering and itinerant, roving Lupin must return the favor to the princess who he is bound by chivalric codes to protect. But this Knight is no heavy hitter with a broadsword and bravery bordering on recklessness. No, he is an errant knight in a twofold sense. Both the knight of wandering errancy and the knight of delinquency, of lawbreaking, and of disobedience.
Lupin will fight assassins in hand to hand combat when needed, but he will use his guile to sneak into the Count’s fortress undetected through an old, abandoned roman aqueduct. He will sneak into the Princess’ secluded tower at night to spirit her away in the darkness (though he will initially fail, his second attempt with the help of his allies will succeed), he will cheat and steal and connive until he restores the Duchy of Cagliostro to his princess Clarisse and destroys the illegal counterfeiting operation and the Count’s covert assassin ring. He will present Clarisse with a rose of his love and devotion of service, but will ultimately deny the role the traditional hero-knight quest-scripts all maintain: that the knight wed the princess in the absence of a worthy prince. Lupin instead drives off into the distance to have more adventures, to lead a life of cunning and wiles, and to save the princess the corruption she would receive through fraternizing with the debauched and criminally-damaged likes of himself.
Always the trickster and jester attempting to overturn the tables and talk truth to the powerful through whatever means available and/or necessary, always the quixotian figure running after windmills and moving purposefully through the world with an illusion of greatness, and always our favorite heroic good guy at heart, this chapter in the original saga of Lupin III was a perfect beginning to a phenomenal career for Miyazaki-san. I thank him for enriching my life, even just a little bit, by creating this film. And I hope it does the same for you.
(Check out Part 2 of this series: Nausicaa HERE)