June 22, 2006
In a perfect world, the instant you say "car chase" to a film fan, they think of 1968's Bullitt. In that same perfect world, the instant you say those words to an anime fan, they think of 1979's Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. On the surface, the protagonists and their rides couldn't be more different. Steve McQueen's Lt. Frank Bullitt is honourable, the cop kids want to be when they grow up. Lupin is the trickiest thief you'll ever meet; he does good not out of a sense of honour, but because it serves his purpose—or, more likely, entirely by accident.
Castle of Cagliostro was Hayao Miyazaki's first feature, though he had previously directed episodes from the Lupin III television series. It's a bit of an anomaly for his films, in that all of his later works feel like an extension of his personality; you see his touches (like his love for European cars), but you don't feel him. It's also an anomaly for Lupin; although the anime Lupin wasn't as sexy or violent as the manga, Miyazaki sands the edges down a little more, making him more of a nice guy. But the one thing that works well for both Miyazaki and Lupin is the director's ability to depict a thrilling chase.
Castle of Cagliostro starts with Lupin and his literal partner in crime Jigen fleeing a casino with bags of loot, the tireless inspector Zenigata chasing after them. Naturally, the pair leave the inspector far behind, and soon discover that their loot is entirely made up of forged notes. By the end of the opening credits, they've been aimlessly cruising through the mountain roads, and find themselves fixing a flat tire. Suddenly, a woman wearing a bride's gown roars past them in a red Citroën; before that can even register on the two thieves, another car with shady-looking men in black suits and sunglasses speeds by in hot pursuit.
Lupin hustles Jigen in the car and they take off, Lupin's 1960s-jazz theme music also kicking into gear. Of course, the pair have no idea what's going on, prompting Jigen to ask whose side they're taking. "The girl!" shouts Lupin, as he pits his driving skills and Jigen's deadshot aim against the mysterious men in black. Jigen discovers their tires are bulletproof, and they get a nasty surprise when the men in black start throwing grenades at them. Lupin's solution defies all sense: he drives almost sideways up the sheer side of the cliff, careens madly through the forest (blink and you'll miss the wallop he receives from a low-hanging branch) and comes down again in front of the car, giving Jigen the chance to put an armor-piercing bullet through the bad guys' front tire.
Like Bullitt's car chase, the one in Castle of Cagliostro is a product of its time and its director. To modern audiences, these are brief affairs; Cagliostro's chase lasts just two minutes, which is nothing compared to the extended urban crashfests we're handed every summer at the multiplex. Modern filmmakers should take note: it's the compactness of the chases and the lack of distraction that city streets provide that make these work so well. In these two minutes we have explosions, near misses, shattered windshields, ridiculously unsafe speeds on curving, narrow roads, and our two heroes grinning maniacally, clearly having the time of their lives.
Castle of Cagliostro was the first anime film to screen at Cannes, though it was outside of competition (the first to screen in competition was Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence), and longstanding (though unconfirmed) fan lore says that Steven Spielberg saw the film and declared that it had the best car chase ever committed to film. I have my doubts that he said it, but the sentiment expressed is pretty darn close to the truth.
Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro
Tokyo Movie Shinsha
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