Our series on learning to live with the animation master

This July will see the release of How Do You Live?, the twelfth and (presumably) final film of legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. Little is known about How Do You Live? aside from the fact that it is inspired by a 1937 novel of the same name, and that Miyazaki has created the film specifically for his grandson, saying, “Grandpa is moving on to the next world soon, but he is leaving behind this film.”

But in fact, all of Miyazaki’s films have something to say about life, and living, and being alive. With this series, we will go through each of his eleven films and unpack what each one has to say about, well, how do you live?

THE FILM: Lupin III — The Castle of Cagliostro

The second feature film in the long-running Lupin III franchise, The Castle of Cagliostro is something of a departure for the character as established in the popular manga by Monkey Punch and its anime adaptation (which Miyazaki also worked on).

Here, the world’s greatest thief is depicted as an altogether altruistic hero rather than the dangerous, unpredictable figure he’d been to that point.

Cagliostro sees Lupin leading his team—including gunslinger Jigen, samurai Goemon, untrustworthy operative Fujiko, and antagonistic lawman Zenigata—on a mission to rescue the imperiled Princess Clarice from the clutches of her wicked uncle, who also happens to be the criminal mastermind behind an international counterfeiting operation. To save Clarice, Lupin and (what passes for) his friends will brave a high-tech castle replete with death traps, dungeons, laser beams, the whole works.

The mission statement here isn’t so much in the plot of the film itself. The Castle of Cagliostro is a terrific film, but it’s Miyazaki’s simplest, most straightforward effort. The good guys are very good, the bad guys are very bad, and everything works out in the most desirous manner imaginable. It’s clean and straightforward, whereas pretty much every other Miyazaki film rejoices in mess, in sprawl, in taking roundabout routes to get wherever they’re going, which ultimately never matters quite as much as the journey itself.

But the how of the film—now that’s where things get more interesting. That’s where we might learn something fundamental about, and from, Miyazaki.

The Castle of Cagliostro is a spin-off movie from a TV show based on a comic book. In fact, it’s the second spin-off movie from a TV show based on a comic book. Here, Miyazaki is not only working off an existing property with an established universe, characters, and visual language, but with limitations in his budget and production that are palpable throughout.

There is no reason to expect greatness from such an effort. Many is the filmmaker who has diligently plugged away at this sort of cash-in production just to get their foot in the feature filmmaking door, saving their best material for when they have more impressive resources and are empowered to generate their own projects. It goes without saying that you can extend this to essentially any creative field: the “one for them, one for me” tradeoff that can become a kind of quicksand and swallow entire careers.

And yet, Castle of Cagliostro is great. It’s more than great. For almost any other director, it might just have been the crowning achievement of their career. Rather than just taking the paycheck and bringing the project in on time and on budget, Miyazaki brought the absolute best of his abilities to this material.

It just goes to show that you don’t have to accept “good enough” as being good enough. You can make that extra effort, push that extra step, reach that extra little bit higher.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be rewarded right away. Castle of Cagliostro was a box-office disappointment during its original release, and Lupin III fans were annoyed by how much Miyazaki softened the brutish, violent rogue of the manga.

None of that was enough to prevent Castle of Cagliostro from quickly finding an international audience and becoming massively influential. Miyazaki ultimately had the last laugh, as his version of Lupin ended up becoming the character’s default, replicated endlessly across the subsequent decades.

But even if that hadn’t been the case, even if Miyazaki hadn’t gone on to his own legendary career and Castle of Cagliostro became nothing more than a curious, misbegotten entry in an expansive media franchise, the quality of the work would still speak for itself.

Whatever happens to your art after you’ve created it is, fortunately or unfortunately, totally out of your hands. Audiences may like it, audiences may dislike it, audiences may in fact not show up at all and leave you wondering if any of your efforts were worth it. But that’s beside the point.

The point is the work. The point is the process. The point is knowing that regardless of the rest of the world, you did the absolute best that you could do.

Ultimately, Miyazaki trusted his instincts, his creative process, and his own artistic interests and passions. If more filmmakers brought such fervor to the for-hire jobs they took in order to build clout for the movies they actually want to make, Hollywood would be a healthier dream factory.

Next Up: Brendan Agnew will break down what we learn when we wander through the wasteland with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

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