It feels quite rare when we see the release of an old anime over here and I'm not talking old as in from the 90s! Instead, I'm referring to anime from the 70s and beyond. Considering how foundational many of them are and continue to be, I'm always disappointed by the inevitable focus on the new rather than the old. That's one of the reasons that I was overjoyed when Third Window Films announced that they were bringing the first two films of the Animerama trilogy to home video in the UK and Ireland. However, I was also incredibly interested in seeing these films due to my admiration for Osamu Tezuka. Having heard for years about the ambition and passion he initially had for the Animerama trilogy, I was happy to finally see the films I'd been wondering about. While the boxset released by Third Window Films contains both the 1969 film A Thousand and One Nights and the 1970 Cleopatra, I decided to review each film separately as there is easily enough to say about each.
Before I start talking about A Thousand and One Nights, I wish to paint the setting for why Osamu Tezuka decided to produce these films in the first place. Mushi Production, the animation company established by Osamu Tezuka in 1961, was struggling despite producing popular series such as Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Princess Knight. This was due to these shows being sold to Japanese networks for a loss with merchandising and international sales intended to keep the company afloat. Alongside this, Mushi Production were also producing experimental short films, and, while critically acclaimed, were not profitable. At the same time, a genre known as "Pink films" was thriving, see Richard Durrance's reviews of several of these films for more information, and Osamu Tezuka saw an opportunity. He would create a trilogy of adult animated films that would cash in on the Pink film craze to increase the profitability of his studio and he would use the films as an outlet for his experimental animation. Thus, in 1969, the first film of the Animerama trilogy was released, A Thousand and One Nights.
A Thousand and One Nights follows a water merchant called Aldin who travels to Baghdad. While there, he sees a slave market where a beautiful woman named Miriam is on auction. Unable to bid, he watches as a pompous rich boy successfully purchases her but, as soon as the auction is complete, Baghdad is hit by a tornado. In the commotion, Aldin rescues/kidnaps Miriam and goes into hiding with her.
While this is a brief summary of the introduction, the film very quickly expands to a much grander story with a wide-range of characters spanning many of the tales present in the literary classic "A Thousand and One Nights". Many of these characters are interesting and endearing and the story itself is full of twists and turns but, unfortunately, there are some pacing issues. The film itself is 128 minutes long, putting it in the top 25 longest animated films of all time, and it's a case where I believe that this runtime actually hurts the flow of the film. While the film never forgets about Aldin for too long, which is certainly a good thing, the same cannot be said about the rest of the cast as we are introduced too quickly to numerous characters only for many of them to be forgotten as Aldin sets off on an adventure through a few of the tales of A Thousand and One Nights. While the results of his adventures are very important to the events of the last third of the film, and there's a few very memorable moments as well, it feels so disconnected from the rest of the film and cast of characters that it can feel a little frustrating. This problem also extends to a few characters that are introduced in the last third that I personally feel are unnecessary and seem to serve little more than comic relief and an opportunity for deus ex machina.
However, while the story is certainly flawed in execution, it's one that I still enjoy. Aldin himself is quite charming and the way his character arc develops over the course of the film is fascinating to watch. Additionally, the film is chock-full of memorable moments that truly felt wondrous and epic and I continue to look back fondly at many of them. The conclusion to One Thousand and One Nights is something that I'm sure is going to be divisive but I personally loved the ending.
Having mentioned that Osamu Tezuka was hoping to take advantage of the popularity of Pink films, you might be wondering how the sexual content is in One Thousand and One Nights. The first thing to say is that the film isn't a hentai or any pornography of the sort and, if you're going in expecting it to be, you're going to be disappointed. However, I personally see this as a strength of the film as I wouldn't be particularly interested in that content. Instead, the film feels more like a form of experimental erotica with the sex scenes feeling quite abstract in their depiction. There are also a few moments of sexual violence but I think that the film manages to distinguish these from the consensual in the manner they're depicted, the length of time devoted to them and the tone and I would consider these depictions to be delicately handled.
As amused by the story and characters as I was, it's the animation of this film that truly shines. Much of the film is depicted in high-quality 2D animation but various other forms of animation and techniques are taken advantage of in delightful ways. For instance, aerial views of the city of Baghdad are depicted using models and the sweeping pans contribute to the epic feel of the film. Along with this we see live-action footage integrated alongside animation like an animated character looking at the real waves of the ocean and, for the 2D animation itself, shifts in style which makes use of minimalism, for instance in the sex scenes, or surreal and trippy animation such as when the forty thieves dance in the magic cave and are depicted with body parts stretching and squashing in slow motion with sharply contrasting backgrounds. While the animation certainly isn't flawless, there were one or two animation errors that I spotted while watching, the film itself is a visual treat for fans of animation.
The music is also quite unusual. You would expect in a historical epic film with fantasy elements that the music would be the epic orchestral pieces you would hear if you were to watch Lawrence of Arabia or Gladiator and that music is certainly present. However, the soundtrack for the film also contains music that feels quite jazzy or electronic which creates some bizarre contrasts like in the opening where we see Aldin walking through the desert with some upbeat jazz music before switching to orchestra as we see the city of Baghdad. Given the experimental feeling of this movie, I think the soundtrack works surprisingly well and I think Isao Tomita, the composer for the film, did an excellent job of enhancing Osamu Tezuka's vision.
The film is only available in Japanese on Third Window Film's release. The American copy of A Thousand and One Nights, distributed by Discotek Media, does include an English dub that was produced for the film's original American release but is incomplete as 28 minutes of footage was cut from the film. Therefore, if you want to watch A Thousand and One Nights in its entirety, you're going to have to watch the film in Japanese. However, I have no problem with this as the cast themselves give strong voice performances that perfectly complement the aesthetic of the film whether it be in some of the more serious moments or the comedic. The actor who voices Aldin, Yukio Aoshima, does a particularly excellent job as Aldin transitions from a character who is goofy and carefree to one who is cunning and determined and manages to capture this change in subtle ways.
As I mentioned before, Third Window Film's release also includes Cleopatra, the second film of the Animerama trilogy. The subtitles for A Thousand and One Nights do feature a noticeable amount of typos and errors but they still prove to be sufficient to understand the movie. As for extras relating to A Thousand and One Nights, the boxset comes with a very nice booklet written by Simon Abrams that discusses some of the history of A Thousand and One Nights. It's brief at only about 3 pages but it's dense with information. We also have a very informative commentary by Helen McCarthy, an expert in the field of anime and manga, who discusses various components of the film, the background of people involved in the production and numerous other information. Finally, there's an interview which runs about 50 minutes with the now late director Eiichi Yamamoto. It covers both A Thousand and One Nights and Cleopatra and also proves to be highly informative.
While A Thousand and One Nights is quite a flawed film, I can't help but find myself enjoying it. The story manages to work despite pacing issues and a few unnecessary characters and the animation is absolutely breathtaking in its ambition and variance. If you're an Osamu Tezuka fan, you're definitely going to watch this movie and, for those of you enchanted with the medium of animation and many of its techniques, you'll find plenty to enjoy.