Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hayao Miyazaki's retirement means no more sublime moments of animation like my favorite food scene in The Castle of Cagliostro

Jigen and Lupin give as much a fuck about carbs as they do about the law.
I've been co-writing an article about YouTube videos that have fused anime footage with hip-hop joints (the piece will turn up over at Word Is Bond). While working on that, I binge-watched on Hulu the entire single-season run of last year's animated caper show Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, a raunchy, not-for-kids prequel to the Lupin the Third franchise, after I saw comic book critic David Brothers recommend Fujiko Mine in one of his Tumblr posts. Both the in-the-works article and Fujiko Mine got me to revisit the much-revered caper flick The Castle of Cagliostro, a 1979 theatrical spinoff of the late '70s Lupin TV series and a film I hadn't seen in 20 years.

I enjoyed rewatching set pieces like the mountainside car chase and the clock tower climax, which director Kevin Altieri memorably paid tribute to in the climax of Batman: The Animated Series' first Clock King episode ("That movie is what got me into animation," said Altieri in a 1993 Cinefantastique magazine interview where he also noted that even though Cagliostro was done with limited animation, it tells "a real story with real emotion"). But during this rewatch, I also noticed something equally sublime that I didn't quite pay attention to when I watched Cagliostro on VHS as an action scene-loving kid: the food scenes.

After the car chase, Lupin and his sidekick Jigen stop for a bite to eat and share what has to be the most delicious-looking plate of spaghetti and meatballs ever drawn in animation (it's so delicious-looking that fans of the film have attempted to re-create the same-looking dish in their kitchens). That little dining scene caught my attention this time out because spaghetti is one of the few meals I know how to cook.

Jigen what?
(Photo source: Fanpop)
It's also because the way Lupin and Jigen grab the pasta with their forks is as dynamically realized as the car chase and the clock tower fight. Again, the animation is limited, yet it's a scene that's imbued with personality and great character details, something that can't be said about the limited animation and frequently recycled shots in the Filmation Saturday morning cartoons that were being made in America at the time. Also, Lupin and Jigen's enjoyment of their meal isn't done in a comedically exaggerated way, like whenever everybody's favorite potheads Warner Bros. Animation will never admit are potheads, Shaggy and Scooby, are shown devouring submarine sandwiches (although later in the film, an injured and famished Lupin's attempt to get back in the game by binging on chicken and entire blocks of cheese is a very Shaggy and Scooby-esque bit of slapstick).

Cagliostro was the first film I ever saw that was directed by legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, so I wasn't aware of his trademark touches as a filmmaker. Since that first viewing of Cagliostro, which also happened to be the first feature Miyazaki directed, I've peeped most of his other films, and I've noticed he and his Studio Ghibli animators draw and animate food like nobody else. For instance, in Howl's Moving Castle, bacon actually looks like bacon, not unappealing sticks of Topps baseball card gum (although in the film, the bacon is served with sunny-side-up eggs, which makes the bacon slightly less appetizing for me because I hate eggs--except when they're in omelet form). Miyazaki objectifies food instead of women, which makes him the least pervy of Japanese animators (both that and his knack for writing interesting and fully dimensional female characters are why women love his films). His live-action equivalents in the food porn department are Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese, whose 1974 documentary short Italianamerican and famously food-porny GoodFellas shouldn't be watched when you're hungry.

Those little cuisine-related moments are an example of what Emily Yoshida describes in Grantland as "his intimate understanding of the most mundane human phenomena," and that understanding is what I'll probably miss the most about Miyazaki, who happened to announce his retirement from directing as I was revisiting Cagliostro. For his final directorial effort, the 126-minute Wind Rises, which was received quite well at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere earlier this week and is slated for American release in February, Miyazaki chose to do a historical drama about Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, making this his most grounded and least fantasy-driven directorial effort since Cagliostro. I don't know if there will be any tantalizing shots of food in The Wind Rises like there are in Cagliostro or Spirited Away, but if he has somehow managed to make the much quieter drama of the ambivalence over building weapons for war as interesting as those food scenes, The Wind Rises will be a solid closer to the mostly satisfying full-course dinner that has been Miyazaki's filmography.

Themes from Lupin the Third, including the 1980 Lupin main title theme, which was used as an action theme in Cagliostro, as well as selections from scores to other Miyazaki movies (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle), all can be heard during the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" block, weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

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