Animerama: A Thousand and One Nights / Cleopatra 千夜一夜物語 / クレオパトラ(1969/1970)

Animerama: A Thousand and One Nights / Cleopatra 千夜一夜物語 / クレオパトラ(1969/1970)

Third Window Films are releasing two feature length anime films by Mushi Productions, the animation studio founded by Osamu Tezuka, the “Godfather of Manga”, nearly 50 years after they were made. Mushi Productions short films and TV series led to Animerama – feature films which were aimed at the specifically adult market, animated films with an unmistakable visual and narrative style that was pioneering as well as distinctly different. So naughty narratives and bawdy humour abound in the innovative epic pink-anime A Thousand and One Nights (1969) and the following year’s Cleopatra (1970). Both directed by Eiichi Yamamoto (the latter co-directed with Tezuka) they have been released in a restored, widescreen format with their colourful art and ribald humour. These films offer something utterly unique with their smutty instigation and fantasy narratives.

A Thousand and One Nights, the first Animerama film, is based upon the collection of tales sometimes known as The Arabian Nights in its more family friendly versions, combining Middle Eastern folk tales, often of a sexual, humorous or fantastical nature, and tales derived from many other cultures and histories. Animerama’s adaptation blends a number of narratives into an overriding tale of myth, mirth and sexual passions where fetishism and fantasy mix with slapstick crudity. Here, the nature of the anime medium allows allows its creators to mould all of the fantastical elements into a conjuration of visual ideas over its narrative which features the life of wandering vendor Aldin and his exploits in search of wealth and lustful shenanigans.

Aldin (Yukio Aoshima) is a seller of magical curative water of uncertain abilities seeking to deal his wares in Baghdad. He becomes infatuated, along with many others, with the beautiful slave Milliam ( Kyōko Kishida), on auction at the local marketplace, but his limited monetary resources cannot compete with the 10,000 gold coins that the son of local police chief Badli (Hiroshi Akutagawa) offers. Aldin grasps the luscious little lady during a sand-storm and the pair flee, seeking shelter in the home of a rich voyeur who incarcerates them as their lovemaking blossoms. Aldin declares his to his new amour, “we aren’t master and slave we’re man and woman and let me prove I am master of passion”, and indeed they fall in love amidst their lustful exploits. The two are parted when Milliam is captured by gang boss Kamhakim (Asao Koike) and his group of forty thieves, at the behest of Badli to return her to his somewhat impotent son. Aldin also encounters Kamhakim’s group along with his feisty arrow wielding, red-headed enthralling daughter Madia (Sachiko Itō). Time passes and the pregnant Milliam gives birth to Aldin’s daughter Jallis, but tragically passes away. Aldin voyages around the globe, sometimes accompanied by Madia, on a journey that sees encounters with an island of luscious snake women, genies, pirates, shape-changing imps, Cyclops and all variety of strange creatures. As time passes, Jallis has grown up to become the spitting image of her mother and Aldin is still seeking resolution, even as he has his many wishes granted…

The engrossing animation in a variety of styles which take the form of distinct episodes ensures that the interest of the viewer is never curtailed, with its rip-roaring adventures and exotic locations, despite the film’s relatively epic length (for an anime feature) at over two hours. So the bookended monochromatic wanderings of our protagonist as he journeys from one adventure to another is depicted with accentuated shadow casting and straight to camera perspectives. Similarly, the fantasy elements are depicted in a number of different styles, as are the multitude of scenes of sex, debauchery and nudity as well as occasional violence where the blood is artistically bright crimson. In addition, live footage is combined with cell-animated overlays (especially for shots of the sea) which brings the fantasy into some surreal depiction of the real world. And to indicate the newly popularised sex-film genre there is one sex scene that is depicted not in black and white but in pink and white. The humour is bawdy but also slapstick and social, with comedy characters such as the constantly shape-shifting married nymphomaniac imps. And of course there is never a missed opportunity for exposed flesh; fighting-femme Madia cannot wear a single costume without at least one breast exposed. But this is also a film where the depiction of mythical creatures abounds with imagination. So Pegasus is a flying hobby-horse cum wooden unicorn. Also a number of cross-cultural jokes abound, when the new round of a competition is announced by the clash of a gong, marked “A-Rank” and sounding just like that English studio’s title trademark. Complementing the visuals is a wonderful contemporary soundtrack by electronic music pioneer Isao Tomita which combines elements of Arabic themes with psychedelic guitar music to great effect. This is very much an experimental film, something the “Carry On Aladdin” with added innuendo premise would not initially imply. In many ways it is reminiscent of another episodic, modern pop-culture art-animation Yellow Submarine (1968), released the same year, whose art influences from numerous periods of history would be further used in Animerama’s second film.

So Cleopatra would be a further erotic drama from a bygone age only this time set in Egypt? Well yes. And no. Cleopatra, co-directed by Eiichi Yamamoto and Osamu Tezuka, is set in the future where humans face destruction from aliens from the planet Pastorine. But the Pasateli’s fiendish plot to overtake humankind through a devious plot called the Cleopatra Plan could perhaps be aborted if a group of three humans – Mary, Jiro and Harvey – travel back in time to Cleopatra’s Egypt through possessing the minds of three key figures of the period and determining the nature of the plan; hopefully preventing its nefarious formation in their present time. Egypt is in a time of turmoil as the Roman Empire seeks occupation. Julius Caesar has gained massive dominance but there is a rebellion group wanting to overthrow the empire and regain control of their country. This involves turning the rather ordinary looking Cleopatra, by use of a magic potion, into a legendary beauty capable of seducing Caesar and murdering the leader of the dictatorial empire by any means necessary. Our time travellers arrive, Mary possessing Cleopatra’s voluptuous handmaiden Lybia, whilst horny Harvey finds himself a leopard named Rupa and Jiro turns into butch masculine Roman slave Ionius. Their plan is clear but how can they achieve it? Their return to their own time will only occur “when Cleopatra dies you all come back”? Problems abound as Cleopatra’s mission is averted when she decides that she prefers sex to murder. Can the three curtail their own concupiscence proclivities to protect humanity’s future, thousands of years hence?

We make love all the time. For some reason we can’t stop,” declares the song and ne’er a more apt lyric has been sung. As Helen McCarthy (author of The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga) suggests at the beginning of her commentary of the film, Cleopatra “is a very flawed film but a very lovable film”. Indeed it is and in many more ways than you might perceive given its pink anime adult comedy science-fiction premise where gratuitous buxom naked girls and non-subtle innuendo are the forte. This is, in many ways, an aesthetic combination of art-house and experimental cinema with aspects that takes a legendary story, mixes it with anachronistic elements from the future and imbues it with a plethora of references historic and artistic, in a melange of visual invention that at times is inspirational in its audacity and sometimes verging on gratuitous randomness. However, it is never, ever short of compelling in its instigation. So from its opening, a model shot of spaceship Earth and Moon (to eventually zoom down to a specific place and indeed time on Earth) we are presented with live action, which is enhanced by interiors and characters…. except the characters have cell animated faces that will link and morph into their entirely animated time-traveller versions. The artwork depicted within the film ranges from pointillism to Lichtenstein animated kitsch with added political perspective from figures such as Hitler and Napoleon. Mix in existentialism and minimalism and you have a mash of anime post-modern parody, in-between the crowd pleasing, suddenly censorship relaxing, sultry smirking comedy-porn. Loads to adore, quite a lot to mock, it is nevertheless thoroughly enjoyable throughout.

Perhaps because of the TV background of Mushi Productions the Animerama debuts A Thousand and One Nights and Cleopatra occasionally have the feel of a condensed anime series binge-watch with opening establishing episode introduction of characters and situation segueing into episodic events that further the overall arc to its conclusion. However, these are cinematic productions with widescreen scope and make for far more lavish and experiential viewing. Extras on the discs include an interview with director Eiichi Yamamoto as well as commentary tracks from Helen McCarthy. These Animerama films are essential for anyone seeking to understand the advent of Japanese naughty narratives as well as the artistic context of anime. So post-modern art meets sleaze, animated with science-fiction fantasy orgies of debauchery. What isn’t to like?

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