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Osamu Tezuka's Animerama: A Thousand & One Nights/Cleopatra (1969/1970)

Osamu Tezuka- often known as "The God Of Manga" -had an incredibly varied career that spanned both comics and animation. He worked in dozens of different genres, creating stories for all ages and sorts of audiences. While he's best known for works such as Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion (series geared towards children) he also produced works aimed at adults. In the late 60's and early 70's, apparently frustrated at being pigeonholed as a children's entertainer he created the Animerama series, his first animated works aimed at an explicitly adult audience.

A Thousand & One Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970) were directed by Tezuka's close collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto and produced by Mushi Pro. Tezuka himself was credited with  "story and idea". The two films are now available in a world-first Blu-Ray and a remastered DVD edition in the UK via Third Window Films.

A Thousand & One Nights is (loosely) based on the classic Arabian Nights, but restores some of the more adult elements that were removed from most later versions of the stories. It follows the exploits of the water seller Aldin (ie. Aladdin) through a series of adventures which kick off when he runs off with a beautiful slave girl called Mirim (Miriam). There's no magic lamp, princess, wisecracking Genie or scheming Jafar here- this is a long way from the Disneyfied version of the story. But it's also not quite like anything else you've ever seen.

That's clear from the opening sequence when a strutting Aldin emerges from the haze of the desert to the strains of a seriously funky electronic theme song ("Here Comes The Man called Aldin"), before cutting to credits accompanied by a more traditional, choral soundtrack. This mix of tradition with 1960s contemporary cool defines the whole film.

Aldin runs afoul of the rulers of Baghdad, pursued by the police chief whose weasely son wants Mirim for himself. Later separated from Mirim, he encounters thieves, snake women and slavedrivers in adventures playing out like a series of vignettes. Around halfway through, the story takes a time-jump to 15 years later, where (with magical assistance) Aldin is now posing as the wealthy trader Sinbad. Throw in imps (or djinns), long-lost daughters and cross-dressing confusion and the story only gets weirder from there.

Cleopatra, released the following year, is stranger still. The first shot is not (as you might expect) one of deserts and pyramids but of a spaceship in the distant future. A group of future humans (who for some reason, are represented by animated faces on live-action bodies) decide to send their consciousnesses back to the time of Cleopatra (for reasons that are too convoluted to go in to here). Even stranger, The sci-fi trappings are then more or less put aside until the film's conclusion.

The main part of the film concerns Cleopatra, who is convinced to seduce the invading Roman leader Julius Caesar, in order to get close enough to assassinate him. But despite herself, she soon finds herself falling for her intended target. As you may have gathered, this is definitely not a conventional or accurate representation of the real-life story of Ancient Egypt's most iconic Queen.

While the God of Manga may not have directed these films himself, his fingerprints can still be seen on virtually every frame. Tezuka built a career out of making the most out of limited animation. This is very much the case here, with the character animation looking very crude by today's standards. The remaster (overseen by Tezuka Productions) tries its best but the films still can't help but show their age.

These films are often described as erotic films ( a bowdlerised cut of Cleopatra was originally sold in the US with the subtitle Queen Of Sex) but this really does not tell the whole story. There is sexual content here and copious amounts of nudity but in reality, these are art films above anything else. Sexual scenes are usually represented by abstract imagery, and there is nothing explicit.

Both films allow Tezuka and Yamamoto to indulge their passion for experimental animation on a grand scale. Animation style changes often scene to scene and on occasion, the plot comes to a virtual halt to insert an abstract flourish. There's some beautiful work here- see the Kabuki theatre style recreation of Caesar's assassination or the sequence in Cleopatra recreating various iconic artworks. Standard Cel animation mixes with occasional live-action inserts, and there's even some very nice 3D model work (particularly in A Thousand & One Nights). The films are also both packed with cinematic techniques such as split-screen and montages that would have been rare in animation (particularly in Japan) at the time.

But how do they actually stand up as films to viewers in the 21st Century?  Honestly, they are pretty hard to recommend to the casual viewer,  or someone simply looking for an evening's entertainment. They are very much products of their time. While the sexual content is mild by today's standards, they still contain material that may offend modern sensibilities. And they are both definitely far too long.

Tonally, they are all over the place, a mix of drama, sex and violence and Tezuka's trademark goofy humour. Of the two, Cleopatra is the more overtly comedic, with more goofs, anachronisms and cameos from other Tezuka characters (and other popular manga characters of the time).

It's not hard to see why audiences of the time were baffled, and (admirably) the special features do not shy away from discussing the flaws of the films.

However, for anyone who wants to experience the full breadth of Tezuka's work, any scholar of Japanese animation, or collector of curiosities, these are absolutely fascinating films. Third Window Films have put together an irresistible package, with an in-depth interview with Yamamoto, and liner notes by film critic Simons Abrams. But the real jewel here in the crown is the excellent commentaries with anime expert (and author of  The Art Of Osamu Tezuka: God Of Manga) Helen McCarthy. Packed with insight and fascinating observations, they really help put the films in context and allow you to see them through new eyes.

These films are best considered alongside Tezuka's experimental shorts like Jumping or Broken Down Film. They may not be his most accessible works, but they are definitely among the most fascinating.

FROM Third Window Films
2hr 10m / 1hr 56m

IN A NUTSHELL: Not one for the casual viewer, but it's a fascinating watch and a fantastic package- the commentaries are worth the price of entry on their own.

*Review Discs provided by Third Window Films*