Having recently taken a look at the first film of the Animerama trilogy, One Thousand and One Nights, it's time that we turn our attention to the second, Cleopatra. Released in 1970 and co-directed by Eiichi Yamamoto and Osamu Tezuka, Cleopatra proved to be a box office failure. This had the results that Osamu Tezuka lost enthusiasm for the Animerama trilogy with Eiichi Yamamoto directing the last film, Belladonna of Sadness, by himself in 1973 and pushing Mushi Production's financial situation into an even more dire situation. Given this background, how is the film itself?
Stay with me here because this movie doesn't open how you would expect. In the far future where humanity has explored space and been conquering planets, it's discovered that an enemy alien species has developed a strategy to defeat humanity called the Cleopatra Plan. In an effort to discover what this plan entails, it's decided that three humans, Jiro, Maria and Hal, will have their minds sent back to the era of Cleopatra's reign and put into the bodies of people that will end up close to her.
As you might have surmised from the premise, Cleopatra is a very strange film. What this results in is a work that is simultaneously brilliant and terrible. To explain what I mean by that, while there is an ongoing story which covers from the Roman invasion of Egypt up to the death of Cleopatra herself, the movie often feels disjointed as the style shifts rapidly from scene to scene. It often feels like Tezuka had too many ideas for experimental animation that he tried to incorporate which produces bizarre scenes such as the assassination of Julius Caesar playing out like it was kabuki theatre or a parade in Rome which features great works of art being animated with gags. The tonal shifts are quite jarring and while individual scenes can prove to be brilliant, the parade is one of my favourite animated sequences of all time, the story itself keeps grinding to a halt and forgetting about the characters themselves.
Speaking of the characters, the single biggest sin that I think this film commits is that it makes Cleopatra a very uninteresting character. The historical Cleopatra, also known as Cleopatra VII, was a fascinating person who used her intelligence and wit to preserve her power and take advantage of the Romans. In this film, she is portrayed as someone who is pushed around by her advisors and is constantly pining for the attention of men such as Julius Caesar or Mark Anthony. I ultimately found her to be quite annoying and frustrating to watch and I did not feel sorrow for her death but rather relief. The rest of the characters fair little better with many proving to be quite bland or irritating. There's a few that do stand out, Julius Caesar himself has a wonderful back and forth of powerful presence in public and emotional vulnerability in private and there are a few other characters that leave their mark as well but they are far and few between. With regards to our supposed main characters, that being Jiro, Maria and Hal, their lack of memories results in the premise of humans sent back in time being criminally underused. Rather than making interesting observations about the setting and characters from a futuristic perspective, they mostly play their parts in a straightforward manner and it's only occasionally when they have a unconscious inkling about something that they shouldn't know that you even remember that these characters have had their minds sent from the future.
Given the influence of Pink films on the Animerama trilogy and the fact that the film ended up being released in America as "Cleopatra: Queen of Sex", you might be wondering what the sexual content is like. Similarly to One Thousand and One Nights, it's not nearly as sexually explicit as you may have heard of. Rather, the sex scenes themselves are animated in generally minimalist or symbolic ways that imply the sex rather than showing it. Besides that, you can expect plenty of topless women walking around and there's an animal that is clearly sexually interested in a human woman but is rebuffed every time he attempts anything.
With regards to the animation itself, this is a clear example of Tezuka letting his creativity run away. The 2D animation of the film is generally smooth and clean but it does feel a bit rougher compared to the quality of One Thousand and One Nights. However, Cleopatra pushes the experimental animation much harder than the previous film. The opening is a perfect example of this where live-action actors act out the scene but have 2D animated heads over them. It's a bizarre combo but it works and it's certainly something that I'd love to see more of. This concept of shifting the animation occurs quite often in order to accommodate the individual scenes and, as a fan of animation in general, I was always excited to see how it was going to be animated next.
Isao Tomita returned to compose for the film and the soundtrack to Cleopatra is even more bizarre than in One Thousand and One Nights. We get some of the sweeping orchestral music we'd expect from a historical epic but we are also introduced to a wide variety of other styles such as the cheery music of the parade or the traditional kabuki music of Julius Caesar's assassination. It's clear that Isao Tomita did his best to match the tonal shifts of the film and I can commend him for his effort and some very lovely tracks but, like the film itself, the soundtrack feels too disjointed to fully enjoy.
Third Window Films' release of Cleopatra only features a Japanese audio track. Similarly to One Thousand and One Nights, there was an English dub produced for the film but it was for a version that had scenes cut so the only way to watch the complete film is in Japanese. The cast themselves do a commendable job working with all of the tonal shifts in such a natural manner that I have to wonder how the film's style and story was conveyed to them as they recorded. The end result is a superb performance from the cast that helps make the film flow a little better.
Cleopatra is part of a box set that also includes One Thousand and One Nights and the presentation of the film is rather similar. The subtitles did feature the occasional typo but not as much as was present in One Thousand and One Nights and is perfectly watchable. A booklet that comes with the box set, written by Simon Abrams, provides some nice insight into the production and reception of Cleopatra and, while a mere three pages long, is packed with information. Helen McCarthy returned to do a commentary for Cleopatra and, just like her commentary for One Thousand and One Nights, presents a wide range of information from cast members, the production crew, references etc. and is a pleasure to listen to. Finally, there is a 50 minute interview with Eiichi Yamamoto which covers both films and proves to be highly informative.
Cleopatra is a film that I feel incredibly mixed on, perhaps the most mixed I've ever felt on a piece of media. On one hand, there are parts of the film that are genuine masterpieces but there's too many flaws with the pacing, characters and story to be able to fully enjoy. I'm glad to have seen it and to be able to discuss it but, unlike One Thousand and One Nights, I can't imagine sitting down one evening to rewatch it by myself.