A Thousand and One Nights (Japan, 1969) & Cleopatra (Japan, 1970)

In most books devoted to anime you will find numerous references to the work of Osamu Tezuka. Most famous for his creation of Astro Boy, Tezuka’s work is one of the key definers of modern Japanese manga. He was also an important animator and founded Mushi Productions in 1961 after the expiry of his contract with Toei. Although Tezuka would leave Mushi in 1968, during those seven years they made several successful anime series including a animated versions of Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Ashinta no Jo. However, the studio would also make some less profitable and acclaimed products, two of which would be the erotic animations A Thousand and One Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto and Tezuka, the films failed to perform as expected and contributed to the bankruptcy of Mushi Productions in 1973, subsequently drifting in and out of popular consciousness.

For many years, securing decent and full-length versions of the films outside of Japan was a hard task. However, to the joy of many anime fans, Third Window Films are now releasing both Blu-Ray and DVD limited-edition versions of the films on a double disc set. The extras in this package are worth the money alone. We have a fascinating new interview with director Eiichi and an informed audio-commentary by Helen McCarthy, author of The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga.

A Thousand and One Nights was generally popular in Japan but failed to interest international markets, although it had a very limited release in USA (so limited that it did not get awarded a certificate). Telling the tale of Aladdin as he rises from lowly water seller to a wealthy and corrupt man lusting after his own daughter, the animation is of the quality that you would expect from a Tezuka production. The often stylized and abstract animation of the film is, in some brief scenes, combined with occasional live-action footage or the utilisation of miniature models – one of these is of water, which until Moana (2016) has arguably never adequately been animated.

The film is entertaining but the main issue is that the Aladdin character is unappealing when compared to the female characters such as the loyal and loving their Mardia and his brave daughter Jaris. It is easy to see why it was a critical and commercial success in Japan but ultimately the film struggles to balance the desire to provide some erotic material, showcase animation skill, and a need to present a rather long and complex story.

The lack of success of Cleopatra is perhaps harder to chart. The film is witty, self-referential and highly engaging. The problem perhaps lies in the selling of the film as erotic when it actually has very little sexual content. Its sex scenes mostly consist of some close-ups of big breasts and a few jokes about male impotency. The film is highly inter-textual with multiple references to both classical animation and 1960s contemporary animation. In scenes such as the Romans ravaging an Egyptian village we also see the characters from Peanuts, Osumatsu-san and Tansai Bakabon being carried off by the soldiers. Cesar is carried into Rome in an American car carried by a series of slaves and Degas’s ballerinas, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Delacoix’s Liberty Leading the People, Bosch’s medieval terrors, Picassso’s Guernica and Dali’s Burning Giraffe are just a few of the images that are interwoven into the films parade scene.

Isao Tomita composed the music for both films and the soundtrack is a strong and notable shared element. One of the pioneers of electronic and space music, Tomita’s score for both the films, but more notably in Cleopatra, gives an otherworldly and reflective soundscape that enhances the sometimes-disjointed narratives. The end of Cleopatra when slave girl/explorer from the future Libya screams into the wind for the Romans to leave her country is a remarkable blend of music, animation and pathos. Both films also serve as an extensive whose-who of the Japanese animation industry. Actors such as Jitsuko Yoshimura, Nachi Nozawa, Yukio Aoshima, and Kyoko Kishida, and famed art director Dezaki Osamu demonstrate their considerable skills.

In 1972, Mushi Production made a deal with Xanadu Productions to release a dubbed version of Cleopatra in the USA. The erotic element of the film was enhanced with a change of title to Cleopatra: Queen of Sex and it was released with an X rating. Although the claim was made that it was the first pornographic animation to be released in the USA, this was not true as Fritz the Cat (1972) predated it by a few weeks. When you compare the two films you can perhaps see the reason for the lack of success. Basically, Cleopatra has very little sex in it. Mushi Productions would fall apart in recriminations, bitter personal rivalries and accusations of fraud. Yamamoto would continue to work as both an animator and a writer – most notably on Space Battleship Yamato (1974-1975). Tezuka would continue to have successful career until his death in 1989 but both films would remains a sore spot with him until the very end.

Whilst both these films have their share of flaws, their entertainment value cannot be denied and I deeply enjoyed re-watching them in a format that gives the animation and soundtrack a much better showcasing than the old German VHS copy that I watched many years ago. I highly recommend that fans acquire one of the limited edition copies that are now available.