Japan (1970) Dir. Osamu Tezuka & Eiichi Yamamoto
Osamu Tezuka is known as the Godfather of Manga, boasting a prolific 40 year career that spawned such hugely influential works like the seminal Astro Boy. Yet, despite his cheery, avuncular appearance and manga designed to appeal to all ages, Tezuka had a thing for adult art and in the late 1960’s decided to satiate this interest.
In 1969 the animation studio Tezuka founded, Mushi Productions, planned a series of films aimed at adult audiences called Animerama, beginning with A Thousand & One Nights, a cheeky take on the Arabian Nights. It did well enough in Japan to warrant this follow-up, a ribald take on the Cleopatra legend, earning the dubious distinction of being Japan’s first X-rated anime film!
The film begins in outer space a few centuries removed from the usual setting of this story. Three humans, Jiro, Harvey, and Maria, are told an alien race called the Pasateli are looking to conquer humankind via a stratagem called the Cleopatra Plan. In order to understand what the plan may involve, the souls of the trio are sent back in time to Ancient Egypt where they will inhabit the bodies of people from this era and learn about the plan from Cleopatra herself.
Arriving in Egypt, Maria inhabits the body of Lybia, one of Cleopatra’s handmaidens, Jiro is a Greek slave held by the Romans named Ionius and Harvey ends up as Rupa, the leopard pet of an old wizard. From here the plot is generally by the book – Egypt is taken over by the Romans, Cleopatra, sister of the usurped Egyptian king Ptolemy plans to seduce Caesar and kill him.
Entire essays could be written about this version of Cleopatra – and probably have – each one having something to say about either the artwork, animation, bawdy humour, sexual content, liberties taken with the story, and the dichotomy of Tezuka the family friendly artist and Tezuka the prurient artist, yet still not cover all of its infamous legacy.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, it was a huge flop in Japan and in the US too, where it was released with an English dub as Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, bombing with audiences for not being as pornographic as per the publicity! This is true, despite the persistent nudity and sex scenes which are more esoteric than erotic, many played for humour.
Offering something that is closer to Carry On Cleo than Shakespeare by way of Monty Python and Family Guy directed by Tex Avery, there is no question that Tezuka and Yamamoto were way had of their time judging by the cornucopia of ideas thrown into this, or maybe, as this was the 60’s, they were simply spaced out on psychedelic drugs!
The sci-fi opening is ingenious yet borderline nightmarish. It’s live action with human actors yet their heads are replaced with animated ones, reversing the old Thunderbirds gimmick of using human hands instead of the puppet hands. It is truly bizarre to witness yet leaves one pondering why it hasn’t been repeated since.
Everything set in Egypt is regular animation but not the slick, familiar anime style that has defined the medium today. The artwork and character designs borrow liberally from sources ranging from Disney, to the Pink Panther cartoons, to Hanna Barbera with a hint of the aforementioned Tex Avery. There is a parade scene that Terry Gilliam would be jealous of, and what appears to be an influence on the art film French Windows, specifically the clip to Pink Floyd’s One Of These Days.
It sounds like one crazy combination of styles that shouldn’t work or make any sense, but miraculously Tezuka and Yamamoto achieve something relatively coherent and fluid out of it. And there is a compelling story driving it, albeit one where some of the finer details have been tampered with, but the general legend of Cleopatra is discernible beneath the surreal presentation.
One glaring issue is that the original premise of the time travellers’ mission is practically shunted to the background until the final moments, focusing solely on Cleopatra instead. To cover for this, the trio have no memories of their past selves (Libya also forgot she wore clothes as she is always topless), yet Jiro as Ionius is somehow able to recall how to build hand grenades and guns whilst Harvey is still a pervert even as a leopard.
Somethings defy explanation though – like why Caesar has green skin (not like the Hulk) or why most of the women are permanently topless (aside from titillation purposes, natch). Perhaps most baffling of all is why the go to all the bother to build a time machine when a simple interception of the alien’s intelligence would have been a quicker way to find out what the Cleopatra Plan was?
However, this will probably go unnoticed since we are treated to a beguiling and arresting visual cacophony of psychedelia, sex and music with sufficient power to distract us from a nuclear war. Whether it is a western influence through the satirical anachronisms or traditional Japanese touches, like the Ides of March played out as a Kabuki play, there is never a dull moment in this film.
Much like its spiritual successor Belladonna of Sadness, the sex is never pornographic and always arty, even if the humour descends often into the tawdry and priapic. The obtuse close up angles undulating curved lines say plenty without giving anything away is juxtaposed by ludicrous comedy of a soldier being rogered to death by a hefty maiden that no amount of bouncing boobs can make sexy – if only the seedy rape references were excised.
It is difficult to decide whether Cleopatra is a misunderstood triumph made 40 years too early or two old men getting their rocks off in a bout of artistic self-indulgence. It’s probably a bit of both. This Blu-ray release from Third Window should see its stock rise with fresh appraisals from modern and more open minds.
Conclusion – Brilliantly bonkers!