A Thousand And One Nights (Sen’ya ichiya monogatari)

Japan (1969) Dir. Eiichi Yamamoto

Recently reviewed on this site was Cleopatra, the racy, experimental animation from manga legend Osamu Tezuka’s studio Mushi Productions’ Animerama series. A year earlier, A Thousand and One Nights was the first film in this series and the first X-rated animated film released in the US!

Like its successor, this film takes many liberties with the tales of the Arabian Nights, injecting some surreal humour and sexing them up a lot! It begins with a humble water vendor named Aldin arriving in Baghdad just as a slave auction is taking place. Aldin falls in love with the slave girl Mirium (Millium per the subs) but can’t afford to buy her, losing out to the son of the local police chief.

Just as the auction concludes, a sand storm hits the city square allowing Aldin to escape with Mirium and flee to a nearby mansion, owned by the lecherous Suleiman, where they celebrate their freedom in the bedroom, as you do. The police chief sends his top man Badli to capture Aldin and Mirium, killing Suleiman in the process for which Aldin is accused and jailed. During his incarceration, Mirium gives birth to a daughter, Jallis, but dies shortly after.    

A few years later Aldin is freed, escaping to the desert where he discovers a cave full of treasures belonging to the forty thieves, which he tries to steal when he is disturbed by young thief Mardia, Suleiman’s daughter. Instead, they decide to see the world, travelling by flying hobbyhorse and setting them on the road of many an unusual adventure across the next 15 years.    

Considering there are 1001 stories to choose from in the Arabian Nights catalogue it is remarkable that the tale of Aladdin is the one that has been adapted the most. It would be fair to say though, that this version is by far the most unorthodox and irreverent in content and approach – if the Arabian Nights was considered a religious text, I’m sure many would consider this film as blasphemy.

For the rest of us, Tezuka’s vision is no different had it been a Carry On film or part of Frankie Howerd’s ribald Up film series of the early 70’s, except the sexual content is more daring but not explicit. Being animated takes the edge off it whilst being a huge selling point, which helped the film do well in Japan but not so well in the US, where it is edited down.

The other side of the coin is the treatment of the story. Tezuka and his co-writers have cherry picked elements from many of the famous stories and their characters and thrown them into the pot to produce this truly eclectic series of loosely connected skits that will cause headaches if you try to make sense of them.

It might not be immediately obvious but there is an overarching plot that makes for a decent foundation for the action, infuriatingly buried beneath a cavalcade of priapic, psychedelic nonsense. It gradually reveals itself as a cautionary tale highlighting the folly of greed and lust for power, how the stroked ego will always make that one mistake that will see their fragile kingdom come crashing down around them.

A web of intrigue is woven across this bloated collection of silly skeins, fanciful frolics, and rampant promiscuity, ending in quite an intense and twisting climax of revelations, hubristic chaos, and bloody vengeance. There is one development which will have you nibbling on your fingernails to your knuckles in that “we know something you don’t” manner which, being an anime is surprising they didn’t follow through with.  

Aldin, of course, is Aladdin without actually being Aladdin, so don’t expect genies in bottles and many of the other plot elements usually associated with the story. There is a flying carpet that appears later on in one of the weirder sub stories involving a pair of horny shape shifting imps who facilitate the romance between Jallis and a sheepherder named Aslarn, setting the tone for the plot for the second half of the film.

Sinbad also makes an appearance but you would recognise him because he happens to strongly resemble Aldin – and for very good reason as he IS Aldin. Confused? Aren’t we all, but considering the last time we saw Aldin he was on an island inhabited by lustful women and he was the sole male, leading to plenty of bonking. Unfortunately, these weren’t ordinary women as Aldin discovered at his peril.

Like Cleopatra and the third Animerama film Belladonna Of Sadness, the majority of the artistic experimentation and indulgences is found in the sex scenes, making them more erotic than the real thing but in a non-erotic way. The curves of intertwining thighs twist and evolve into subtly penetrating appendages creating a continuous stream of sensual movement.

Elsewhere, the live-action/animation hybrid of the opening of Cleopatra is employed here too, this time with oceans being real footage with animated boats sailing on them. Also, the panorama shots of Baghdad are made up of a scale model, clashing badly with the cartoon rubble of the collapsing tower in the final act.

Being a product of the 1960’s the women are by large presented purely as sex objects to satiate the male libido. While this doesn’t define them, like the deadly Mardia or the strong willed female imp, being topless most of the time undermines their standing as credible and strong characters. Not that the men escape being tarred with a generic brush, the Arabian setting sees some racial stereotypes played up to in full force.

A Thousand and One Nights biggest flaw is that it is too long. At 130 minutes, it falls foul of pacing issues and a serious middle section lag as the story wanders off into irrelevant territories. One can still appreciate the inventiveness of the presentation and zaniness of the humour though, making this a curiosity any discerning anime fan should at least see once.

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