Cleopatra (クレオパトラ, Osamu Tezuka & Eiichi Yamamoto, 1970)

Cleopatra posterMushi Pro’s first real foray into feature length (and feature length it really was at over two hours) animation for adults, A Thousand & One Nights, had earned some critical plaudits but nevertheless failed to set the box office alight. A year later they tried again as manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka and experimental animator Eiichi Yamamoto reteamed for a salacious tale of ancient Egypt. Or at least that’s what was promised by the suggestive title, Cleopatra (クレオパトラ), recalling Hollywood glamour and cinematic excess anchored by beauty to echo through the ages, but what emerges is less a tale of doomed love and imperial lust than a thinly veiled attack on the American “occupation” and associated foreign policy in an increasingly politicised age.

Because Tezuka likes to be perverse, he opens not with deserts and pyramids but with a silent ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey before a space ship drifts into view and sails into a very space age tower block filled with very ordinary corridors. Our team of space warriors are part of a colonising force hellbent on conquering nations which don’t which to be conquered. The Pasatorine have mounted a resistance and Earth intelligence has got wind of a covert operation codenamed “Cleopatra”. To figure out what the name might mean, they’ve decided to send three of their best agents back in time to hang out with the lady herself and gather a few clues.

Back in Ancient Egypt, the nation has been overrun by lecherous Roman troops who ride roughshod over the local population (which includes a number of well known characters from popular 1960s manga). Caesar (Hajime Hana) himself is a jolly green giant with skin like Osiris who turns out to be a little more sympathetic than might otherwise be assumed. Nevertheless, a resistance movement has spun into action guided by the royal nanny, Apollodoria (Kotoe Hatsui), who has convinced exiled princess Cleopatra (Chinatsu Nakayama) that their best hope for freedom lies in her body which she must use as a weapon against the lusty foreign general in order that she might seduce and betray.

Cleopatra, however, is conflicted. Molested by her old nanny and falling for her unexpectedly “decent” captor, she wavers in her conviction and begins to wonder if the best path for her people might lie in working alongside rather than against her nation’s new masters. As history tells us, she may not get to make that choice for herself for her stony general has a weakness his countrymen can exploit leaving her all at sea once again.

In 1970 Japan was about to revisit the post-war security treaty with the Americans giving rise to a wide scale protests against what many saw as Japanese complicity in controversial American foreign policy and particularly the ongoing war in Vietnam. The Romans, thinly veiled stand-ins for Americans in Japan, march in triumph, oppressing the locals and erasing traditional culture in favour of “modernity”. Yet Caesar and his ilk perhaps turn out not to be so bad as once feared, seducing with false promise as they show off their wealth and prosperity whilst subtly gesturing to their superior numbers and technology to assure any doubters. The colonisers are technically our heroes – the spacemen and women from the beginning we’ve all but forgotten about have come back in time from the position of the imperialists, hoping to find out how Cleopatra’s doomed romantic destiny might inform modern insurgency, but have discovered only a righteous loathing for “occupying” forces and their relentless tendency to ruin the lives of pure hearted women for their own nefarious gains.

Perhaps emboldened by A Thousand & One Nights, Tezuka cannot resist inserting a number of idiosyncratic gags for manga enthusiasts, including a few references to his own back catalogue, while also sending up the pop-culture of the day. Cleopatra is, on one level, a distinctly lowbrow effort filled with deliberately cartoonish slapstick, silliness, and anarchic humour but it also harbours a subversive idea at its centre which was certain to prove popular with a particular section, at least, of its target audience. Mixing live action footage with experimental animation, if retaining a cartoonish sensibility, Cleopatra is a strange interdimensional political metaphor but not without its charms even in its most outrageous moments.


Available on blu-ray from Third Window Films as a part of double release with Eiichi Yamamoto’s A Thousand & One Nights.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

A Thousand & One Nights (千夜一夜物語, Eiichi Yamamoto, 1969)

one thousand and one nights poster 2The “Godfather of Manga” Osamu Tezuka had been a pioneer of what later became the mainstream of a burgeoning industry, kickstarting TV anime in the process with the long running Astro Boy. His ambitions, however, increasingly ran towards the avant-garde and he feared that the heavy association between his production company, Mushi Pro, and genial kids’ cartoons would only lead to diminishing artistic returns even if the increasing merchandising opportunities would perhaps allow the studio to engage in other less profitable areas such the adult-orientated anime he longed to produce. By the late ‘60s, Tezuka’s polite, inoffensive brand of child-friendly adventure stories were becoming distinctly old hat while the “gekiga” movement, acting more or less in direct opposition, continued to gain ground with older readers keen to move on to more adult fare. The Animerama series was intended to prove that Tezuka still had something new and dynamic to bring to the table and that there was a market for “racy” animation which embraced mature themes and experimental artwork.

The first of the Animerama films, A Thousand & One Nights (千夜一夜物語, Senya Ichiya Monogatari), is, as the title implies, loosely inspired by classic Arabian folktales as its hero “Aldin” (Yukio Aoshima) finds and then loses true love, overcomes the urge for vengeance, is himself corrupted by wealth and power, and then is returned to the very same state in which we first encountered him walking off into the sunset in preparation for the next adventure.

The tale begins with a slave auction at which the lowly water seller Aldin first catches sight of the beautiful Milliam (Kyoko Kishida). He tries to buy her but is too poor while the son of the local police chief (Asao Koike) outbids all to win the prize. However, in the first of many strokes of luck that will befall Aldin, a sandstorm allows him steal away with Milliam who falls in love with him too and gives herself willingly to a man she sees as an equal rather than a master. Sadly, their true love story is short lived and they are soon separated sending Aldin off on a quest to return to his beloved that will only end in tragedy.

Despite the later protestations that the love of Aldin and Milliam is one of equals in which there are no masters or slaves, only a man and a woman, it remains true that Aldin watched the slave auction with a degree of titillation and would have bought Milliam had he only been able to afford her. Surviving on his wits, Aldin is a cheeky chancer waiting for that big lucky break he is sure is waiting somewhere round the corner but he is not, perhaps, above becoming that which oppresses him. Later, having become a wealthy and powerful man, he uses his wealth and his power in the same way that others use theirs against him in pressuring a vulnerable young girl to become his mistress against her will, ripping her away from her own true love in the same way he was once ripped away from Milliam by another man wearing a crown. As a “king” he wonders what “power” is, pushing his as far as it will go in order to find out and risking “losing himself” in a way he’d once thought he’d overcome in rejecting a pointless act of vengeance that would forever have changed him.

Milliam, and later Jallis – the daughter of Aldin and Milliam raised by their worst enemy, Badli (Hiroshi Akutagawa), fight for the right to decide their own romantic destiny. Like Madlia (Sachiko Ito), the feisty bandit’s daughter, they resist the social codes of their era in which women are merely prizes divided among men and actively attempt to free themselves through love only to find defeat and despair. Yet love, or more precisely lust, can also be a force of constraint and or ruin as Aldin discovers on a paradise island when he unwisely decides to abandon Madlia, who has also fallen in love with him, for the empty pleasures of orgiastic sex with the voracious islanders whose unrestrained desire soon threatens to consume him whole.

A picaresque adventure, A Thousand & One Nights is a bawdy, flippant retelling of the Aladdin myth in which the hero begins as a poor yet free and cheerful young man before experiencing what it is to be wealthy and all powerful and discovering that it only makes him mean and miserable. Shifting from model shots to live photography and abstract to cartoonish animation, Yamamoto’s direction may appear restrained in comparison to the more outlandish and surreal Belladonna of Sadness but is a masterclass in finding artistry through budgetary limitations. A psychedelic odyssey through freedom and constraint, desire and obsession, A Thousand & One Nights is a forgotten landmark of experimental animation as relentlessly strange as it is endearing.


Available on blu-ray from Third Window Films as a part of double release with Eiichi Yamamoto & Osamu Tezuka’s Cleopatra.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Belladonna of Sadness (哀しみのベラドンナ, Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)

belladonnaLoosely based on Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière (Satanism and Witchcraft) which reframed the idea of the witch as a revolutionary opposition to the oppression of the feudalistic system and the intense religiosity of the Catholic church, Belladonna of Sadness (哀しみのベラドンナ, Kanashimi no Belladonna) was, shall we say, under appreciated at the time of its original release even being credited with the eventual bankruptcy of its production studio. Begun as the third in the Animerama trilogy of adult orientated animations produced by legendary manga artist Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Productions, Belladonna of Sadness is the only one of the three with which Tezuka was not directly involved owing to having left the company to return to manga. Consequently the animation sheds his characteristic character designs for something more akin to Art Nouveau elegance mixed with countercultural psychedelia and pink film compositions. Feminist rape revenge fairytale or an exploitative exploration of the “demonic” nature of female sexuality and empowerment, Belladonna of Sadness is not an easily forgettable experience.

Beginning in true fairytale fashion with a gentle voiceover, the tale introduces us to Jean (Katsutaka Ito) and Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama), two ordinary medieval French peasants blissfully in love. Being the good, honest, Christian kids they are, they want to get married but as we’re told, this is the beginning of the story, not its end. Following tradition to the letter the pair turn up at the castle with their families to inform the Baron of their union and pay the marriage tax but the Baron takes a fancy to Jeanne and whacks up the price to a level Jean could never pay even if the entire village sold everything they had to help him, so that the Baron may exercise his droit du seigneur by claiming Jeanne’s maidenhead. After kicking everyone else out the Baron brutally rapes Jeanne before letting all of his cronies have a go too.

Finally crawling home bruised, broken, and violated Jeanne seeks comfort from her gentle husband Jean but despite his fine words, he is unable to accept what has happened and eventually retreats from her. At this point the weirdness begins as Jeanne’s intense inner rage and sadness summons forth a tiny demon friend who looks just like an overly friendly penis and also grows in size a little bit when you stroke him in just the right way. This starts Jeanne on her ultimate path towards becoming a master sorceress and eventual mistress of the devil himself. Jeanne’s fortunes rise in line with her sexual empowerment but an empowered female is not always popular with the ruling elite.

Jeanne’s empowerment and the subsequent threat it poses to the accepted political fabric is the main thrust of the narrative but it’s also important to remember that the process began with a brutal act of rape. Jeanne continues to be raped by her ever growing demon friend until achieving a kind of oneness with the Devil himself but the unwanted acts of Jeanne’s “demon”, who describes himself simply as a part of Jeanne, are mitigated because she is depicted as enjoying them (only guilt makes her say otherwise) and, after all, they form part of her sexual education. Jeanne’s power stems from the intense resentment she feels at her continued lack of agency, eventually buying her power and status enough to threaten the Baron and all he stands for.

Even if Jeanne’s power comes from the darkest of places, everything she uses it for is morally good (at least from a “modern” standpoint). When the Baron returns from a war to find Jeanne ruling the roost, he attempts to canvass some of his subjects hoping to hear tales of her cruelty or ineptitude but finds only praise. Jeanne heals the sick, helps a couple with too many children find a solution to maintain their married harmony without the risk of bearing any more, and even helps an elderly woman make contact with the depths of hell (wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, but she was thrilled to bits anyway).

The worst thing Jeanne’s power provokes is the large scale and extremely strange orgy which takes place in her hair, sees her copulating with the entire village, and even transforms genitals into bizarre creatures. This purely pleasurable exercise, even if against the prevailing moral code, has no real world consequences such as a failed harvest or ruined city brought about by the villager’s abandonment of duty for physical pleasure.

However filled with “goodness” her actions are, Jeanne herself is branded a witch and the only reason she is not burned at the stake immediately is that the Baron and his advisors fear that if Jeanne is burned whilst still bound to the devil, the demonic elements inside her will be set free and could “pollute” the other women in the village with a nasty desire to be taken seriously as people. This fear is later borne out as each of the village women emerges with Jeanne’s impassive face before time jumps on a few hundred years to the French Revolution and its vanguard of valiant women seeking social justice as evidenced by Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting Victory Leading the People which forms the final image of the film.

Belladonna of Sadness seems conflicted over whether this kind of empowerment is a good thing or not. Jeanne’s journey begins with violence which gives birth to rage and an eventual “succumbing” to the dark arts which facilitates her revenge. Everything about Jeanne becomes satanic and her sexuality is the weapon which she wields against male subjugation. The empowered Jeanne is independently monstrous, rather than just monstrous to the Baron and the true forces of evil, thanks to her involvement with illicit supernatural entities. Her independent spirit does indeed pollinate as the Baron feared it might, but whether these women are to be read as having been “freed” or as vengeful harpies robbing men of their rightful place whilst intent on upending the social order, might be a matter for debate.

Yamamoto opts for a mix of styles making great use of still paintings and more primitive animation to enhance the effect. Combined with the very contemporary sounding folk music, the later ventures into the realm of psychedelia lend the film a new age fable quality to present a broadly feminist rape revenge fairytale. However, this particular story offers no happy ending for its heroine even if it does retroactively add one in the form of the ongoing social change her various transgressions engender. Wildly experimental, often extremely beautiful, and necessarily explicit, Belladonna of Sadness is, as its name suggests, a melancholy tale but one just as passionately free as its tragic heroine.


Cinelicious Pics restoration trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)