Monkey Punch's Lupin III has the intimidating breadth of something like the Gundam franchise: there's just so much of it, one scarcely knows where to begin. Hayao Miyazaki's The Castle Of Cagliostro is, from all I've seen, among the best places to start. It is arguably not the most faithful encapsulation of the Lupin aesthetic, as Miyazaki and his team altered a few things to make Lupin and his gang more palatable to mainstream audiences. But it's still a delight to watch, and a nice gateway to the rest of Lupin-dom. And perhaps also a fun backdoor to the rest of Miyazaki's career, as this showcases his talents in a very different container from the other work he's better known for.
Honor among thieves
Most any feature-film incarnation of a big franchise works to make its characters and background concept comprehensible to everyone who just walked in. Cagliostro doesn't do this all at once, but in digestible bits. It opens with career gentleman thief Lupin and his fedora'd, cigarette-sucking partner in crime Jigen beating feet from a Monte Carlo casino they just robbed, and eluding their pursuers in a car that threatens to shake itself to pieces out from under them. When they find out the entire load of cash they've blagged is counterfeit, they dump it into the faces of everyone behind them on the highway.
Something about those fake bills strikes an atypical chord in Lupin. According to what he's heard in the underworld, the tiny Liechtenstein-esque nation of Cagliostro is the source of the vast majority of the world's counterfeit money. On the way to scope out the possible source of those bills, Lupin gets distracted by the only thing to turn his head other than money or valuables: a pretty face. It's a woman in a wedding dress, behind the wheel of a car, driving with her foot to the floor with a whole gaggle of thugs in pursuit. Lupin isn't able to keep her all to himself — er, save her, but pieces together her identity all the same thanks to the signet ring she left behind.
Her name is Clarisse, and she's the betrothed of Count Cagliostro himself. The Count's the one responsible for flooding the world with all denominations and currencies of forged bills, spewed from the printing presses hidden deep beneath the massive fortress of the movie's title. He also has designs on a family secret that only Clarisse can unlock. All this is catnip for Lupin's two biggest motivators — the urge to steal from the high'n'mighty, and the attraction of a pretty woman.
A dual-purpose entry point
A friend of mine who watched Cagliostro before I did described it as a "Rube Goldberg machine". It delights in the kinds of physics of moving bodies that would instantly sink a live-action project for looking unrealistic, but work as animation because of the automatic suspension of disbelief we grant such things. Consider the opening chase, where Lupin and Jigen drive a car that sheds parts with every hairpin turn they make on a perilous mountainside road. The Blues Brothers got away with stuff like this, just barely; it had to work twice as hard, being a live-action film, to not degenerate into a total cartoon in the most derogatory sense of the word. Cagliostro, since it already is animation, has a leg up on the competition for being uninhibited. It stays just this side of real if only because the story it tells involves characters inhabiting a world something like ours, where things like gravity do in fact exist.
Much has been made of this being a Miyazaki movie without the Ghibli label. Little in it would hint at the wide-ranging concerns and deep characterization Miyazaki would become best known for, but I expected that might be the case for a project that was at best ten percent his. It also diverges from the rest of the Lupin franchise if you know anything about how racy (shilling for raunchy) it can be, one of the things Miyazaki seemed directly responsible for. Here, Lupin's leer has been sanded down into a more chivalrous smile, and there's little of the signature byplay we expect between him and Fujiko, although she does have some fun in the screen time she's given).
Even if Miyazaki's storytelling chops don't figure in fully, anyone who's already seen a couple of his movies will sniff out his signature visualizations: the aforementioned car chase; or a wild crowd sequence in a church near the end of the movie; or the labyrinthine interiors (and exteriors) of the castle of the title, where every room feels like it's a mere catwalk over a precipice; or a hair-raising sequence involving a clock face, and a duel inside its guts, that feels like a perverse twist on Safety Last!. And Cagliostro himself feels like a cousin to some of the self-important antagonists we've seen in Miyazaki's better-known projects (e.g., the smirking Colonel Muska from Laputa).
I mentioned before how Cagliostro makes for a relatively friendly introduction to both its franchise and its director. Lupin is so wide-ranging as a franchise, a continuum rather than a front-to-back story (see also: Vampire Hunter D) that I feel any reasonably engaging point of entry is as good as any other. And as far as Miyazaki goes, it's easy enough to recommend his Ghibli works as starters, but you lose little by starting here.