Action-narrative and the logic of landscape painting in Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro


Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Less of Miyazaki’s (re-Depression-era) plasticity of background and foreground, concrete and liquid forms than one might expect, The Castle of Cagliostro is the artist coming up against demands he’d not face again: all deadlines and backgrounds with things moving about in the fore. Which makes sense as a pre-Ghibli first feature, but too much of an emphasis on this angle threatens to turn Cagliostro into a auteur’s curiosity: a product of its time and early run for someone who would become known for their inability to remain formally, temporally fixed. I’m resentful of the historian’s view if it places an anecdote between the audience and the artwork, and The Castle of Cagliostro resists its status as a retroactive footnote.

Even with a clearly delineated back/fore, the shapes that move stretch and squeeze like the artform (animation, but also slapstick) depends on it, rewriting the laws of physics every time anew. The film geography is affectionately imagined (through even intermittently sketchy renderings), and holds the emotional essence of the watching (and one gets the sense, creating) experience. Architectural forms are exhaustively mapped out and brought to life (every staircase, window, roof, hallway), but the architecture of the film itself is one screaming with potential- a clean heat radiates from the blue skies and green hills, and the lake we understand to be cold yet refreshing. We run through the grass and dive from the cliffs into the water, and when the sunset brings in soft pinks and purples we retire to the comfort of structures until nightfall. Night makes everything appear intimate, and the thief relishes the ability of shadows to conceal his movements as he scales the castle. The kinetic potential of night is so strong that we dart around too, whether Lupin is going in the direction we want, or whether our exploration runs against the flow of the central narrative.

Miyazaki, like the best landscape artists, constructs the film geography around areas of play and safety, offering the viewer an active role in bringing it to life through basic human instincts. We can feel it all through our imagined bodies, and Miyazaki’s stripped-down approach to character and plotting means that we rarely have to deviate from the thrill of this connection. Its conventional approach to film space does not make it any less sensorially rich than its descendents, and if the artist is present he is so not in frustration but in a sincere effort to imagine the best of these limits (before variously breaking and broadening them in the future). The Castle of Cagliostro uses the kinetic affordances of videogames and cinema to navigate landscape, and the logic of landscape painting to demarcate plotting- it is exploratory but it explores inwardly, to breathe life into a place that demands we return soon, to again imagine ourselves moving through it.

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