Saturday, August 28, 2004

Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro — The Commentary Track

Roger Ebert is one of my favorite movie critics. He's thoughtful and insightful most times, he's a fan of Miyazaki just as I am, and he goes beyond the status of mere reviewer into being an authority on movies. When Alex Proyas made Dark City, it was Ebert to whom he turned for a commentary track comparing it to Metropolis. Also, I have an inordinate amount of respect and sympathy for someone who has to sit through every bad movie Hollywood makes without even Joel and the bots to keep him company. But another neat thing about Ebert is, he also has some pretty good original ideas from time to time.

A couple of years ago, my interest was piqued by a Slashdot story which featured a link to a column by Ebert that talked about the idea of do-it-yourself DVD audio commentary tracks. The idea was that broadband and digital audio technology gave anyone the power to sit down with a microphone and a DVD and roll his own mp3 audio track—be it for critical purposes, MST3K loonery, or what-have-you. It would even qualify as fair use—it's just a review like any other, except instead of reading it in print, you let it unroll as the movie happens.

Ebert wrote,
This idea intrigues me because I know there are critics and fans on the Web who have a special relationship to movies that even a film's makers can't duplicate. I'm curious, for example, about the depth of the fanaticism for the martial arts and anime genres. I can understand why Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Princess Mononoke are great, but it might be enlightening to listen to a running commentary about Revenge of the Drunken Master or the Sailor Moon series. I would also like to hear a psychologist analyzing Memento, a Vietnam combat veteran talking about Platoon, or Harry Knowles taking us one shot at a time through The Giant Gila Monster, one of the neglected classics he has resurrected for his annual birthday Butt-Numb-a-Thon.
The idea intrigued quite a few other people, too—and so DVDTracks.com was born. Alas, the site became defunct sometime in early 2005. However, archive.org still has a snapshot. And the idea lives on; you can now find alternate commentaries hosted and aggregated at Commentary Central, and another list as well as a Windows DVD player specially designed for playing them at Sharecrow. These sites serve as directories for downloadable mp3 commentary tracks recorded by fans for particular movies, as well as providing a how-to guide for folks interested in trying it themselves. Aside from the Slashdot story, DVDTracks received coverage in Salon Magazine, Pioneer Press, and Lawmeme.

Now, as it happened, there was a movie—one of my all-time favorites—that had recently been released on DVD without any commentary at all, and I thought that just wasn't right. And due to a confluence of factors, I had become sort of a mini-expert into this movie's background and history—so here was a chance to set things right. And so my commentary track to Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro was born. (Since the mp3 link on that page won't work, you can download the audio track for it here or here. Right-click the link and choose "save as," otherwise your browser may try to play it instead of downloading it.)


Note: I revise the commentary track from time to time, whenever I make a new discovery or find out that I was wrong about something, and list the date of revision in the Comments field of the id3 tag. The most recent revision was made on 08/24/06. If your file is older than that, please download the current version.

Update (7/16/2006): In the last few months, after I learned a few more things about Castle of Cagliostro, or received corrections and alterations to my review, I went back into it and fixed some segments and rerecorded others, adding substantially more information and observations. There are still a few things I probably need to add or fix, so the commentary will probably never be entirely finished—but that's just how life is sometime.

Update (8/28/2006): In honor of the two-year anniversary of this essay, I decided to do something special to help folks get the most out of this track. If you are interested in using the Sharecrow Windows DVD player to experience the commentary track, and take some of the gruntwork out of keeping it synchronized, I've made the following .crow files for use with it. Right-click the link and choose "save as," download the .crow file into the same directory as the audio commentary track, then open it from the Sharecrow program's "Profile" screen menu. For watching with…
  • the original Manga Video R1 DVD (with climbing Lupin on the cover): use the .crow found here or here
  • the Manga Video R1 Special Edition DVD (with Lupin carrying Clarice on the cover): use the .crow found here or here
Because the Special Edition's menus are authored slightly differently, its crow will result in losing the first 13.3 seconds of the commentary track to ensure the rest is properly synchronized. Annoying, but it can't be helped; and it's just me introducing myself anyway. If you like, you can play that part separately before you start the movie.

For either version, Sharecrow will also cut off the last minute or so where I kept on talking after the movie ended, but you can play that separately too. Besides, I probably talk too much anyway.


Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro was the second cinematic outing (but the first really popular one) for Japanese author Monkey Punch's "Lupin III" manga and anime character. Lupin III was supposedly the grandson of an early-20th-century French character named Arsene Lupin, written by French novelist Maurice Leblanc; of all Lupin III's outings, Cagliostro was probably the closest in spirit to, and most directly inspired by, these earlier works. As it happened, I already knew a great deal about both the Lupin III character and the original Arsene Lupin character, from diligent research and from seeking out and reading electronic and physical copies of the old public domain Lupin novels. In fact, I even sent a couple of the books I had found—Arsene Lupin and The Hollow Needle—to be scanned and added to Project Gutenberg; I'm very proud of the fact that thanks to me, now anyone who wants to do so can read those glorious old books. (I suggest starting with the first Lupin book, The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar, though.)

But to do a good job on the commentary track, I needed more. I needed to avail myself of every resource available on the Internet, to become a super-expert. I searched and read voraciously, coming up with sites like Cool French Comics's Lupin page, Anna Exter's regrettably defunct Nighthood site, the Lupin III Encyclopedia, The Mystica's article on the original Count Cagliostro—and, of course, Nausicaa.net and the Miyazaki Mailing List, of which I was already a member.

And oh, the things I found out! I started learning facts and making connections that I had never realized before. I had known that there was some Cagliostro person in some of the original Lupin novels, but I had never known that Castle of Cagliostro actually borrowed elements (whether intentionally or coincidentally) from several of the Leblanc books—and I had never known that there really was a notorious figure named Cagliostro who figured prominently into French history. I also learned some interesting things regarding idioms used in the anime from comments on the Miyazaki mailing list by a fan who was working on his own translation of the movie for a personal fansub. (I wish I could link to the mailing list posts in question, but the list administrators made the archives private in an effort to make trolling the mailing list less attractive.) I could go on and on about what I found out—but then you wouldn't have any reason to listen to the commentary track, would you?

Once the research phase was over, I commenced taking notes. I took a pad of index cards and marked each one with a three-minute segment, then I watched through the movie so as to write down a brief summary of what happened in each segment. This would be my guide in coming up with things to say about the film over the course of its hundred-minute running length. After that, I jotted some notes down, watched the movie again, and jotted more notes down. Some cards barely had a couple of lines, such as, "Zippo lighters?" and "Miyazaki's changes to Lupin. This Lupin most like original." Other cards were very full, even written on the back.

Here's the complete text of one of the busier cards, written front and back:

12:00-15:00 — Burned-out castle, groundskeeper, Lupin uses columns as stepping stones, looks at ring.
BIG BEARDS

The "real" Count Cagliostro
born 1743 Palermo, Giuseppe Balsamo
Dabbled in alchemy as a way to con rich people out of money
Travelled world investigating occult & alchemy, invested in Egyptian Freemasonry
Founded Masonic Lodges across Europe
Was popular in France until 1785, involved in events leading to French Revolution, banished
Sentenced to death for heresy by Inquisition
Commuted to life imprisonment
Died in Castle of San Leo near Montefeltro in 1795
[Reminder: look at columns, water gate. HANDS ON CLOCK!]

Castle part of small city-state called San Marino—not unlike Vatican
Landscape seen in chase scenes identical
Castle not.

Once I was finished taking notes, the next phase began. This was where I set myself up with my microphone, my CoolEdit audio recording program, my DVD player, and a pair of earphones (so the DVD audio wouldn't pollute the commentary track). I started watching, reading, and talking. I actually recorded it in several segments, so I wouldn't get too tired or bored or throatsore from talking for too long. Then I went back, listened to it while watching the movie yet again (by the time I was finished, I was definitely ready not to watch Cagliostro for a while), and subsequently recorded over a few places where I'd made mistakes, been unclear, or left omissions.

Although DVDTracks and Ebert suggest splitting the recording up into mp3s to match the chapter stops, that was a bit too fiddly for me, and I didn't quite have the level of expertise with CoolEdit to do anything that fancy. After I'd gotten the wav file as good as I felt I could get it, I compressed it down and ended up with an 18 megabyte mp3 file, which I put on my website and linked into DVDTracks.

After that, there wasn't much to do but wait. People downloaded the track, and I guess they listened to it, but I've never received very much feedback—in spite of the track reaching number six on DVDTracks's "most active tracks" tally with 1190 hits as of the writing of this article. The only quality-rating I've ever received was the one I entered myself, and nobody's left any notes on the commentary track page. I even emailed the link to Ebert himself, since he'd inspired it, and got back a terse "Thanks" with no indication of whether or not he had listened to the commentary or intended to. Still, almost 1200 downloads isn't bad. And in spite of not receiving much feedback, I was contacted by a representative of a company that was going to be making a live-action Lupin III movie to ask if I would like to consult for them. (I've never heard back from them since, though.)

In making the track, would I have done anything differently? Well, a few things. It would be nice to fix a few places in the track where I start to talk about something, then switch to something else and don't go back to what I was originally saying. I'd really like to be able to do something about the background noise on the recording. I wanted some way to filter it all out, to tell the program "any time where the noise level is below X decibels, drop it to zero," but in all my tinkering, I never could manage to make CoolEdit do that. I manually muted a few long stretches of silence (which had the effect of causing some people to think that something had gone wrong with their mp3 player) but I couldn't go through and manually mute every bit of silence. I would also have liked to work out how to alter the speed of the recording for people in countries with PAL players where movies are about 5% faster.

But all things considered, I feel really good about having this recording out there, where I get to play the expert and introduce people who might already enjoy Lupin III to the bigger world surrounding his history and influences. The occasional feedback I get makes me feel good about it, too. Hopefully, it will result in a few more people reading these classic novels, which really are extraordinarily good.

I had hoped that the Cagliostro commentary track might cause more people in the anime community to start putting out commentaries of their own. I would love to be able to listen to a track by some of the Miyazaki Mailing List experts on other Miyazaki movies, like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away—people who are super-experts in Japanese culture as well as Miyazaki, and would be able to point out little moments of significance that would go right over my head. Unfortunately, it hasn't, and that's a real pity. There really should be commentaries for these movies, because they're movies of such great social significance...but I just don't feel qualified to make them.