This is the second major animated piece following the big hit "A Thousand and One Night Stories" in Japan. The distributor treated the film as an erotic animated work for adults, advertising it as a piece "far more erotic than a thousand and one might stories." The film produced a number of popular sayings and gags that have since become outdated. However, the film remains an impressive and beautiful piece.
Cleopatra is a wild ride. Just looking at the cover and reading the synopsis will not prepare you even for a fraction of what happens in this movie and while overall it’s drawn out mess there’s enough crazy in this to warrant a watch.
First things first, when it comes to story Cleopatra is a rather dull, stretched out, vaguely historical retelling of Cleopatra’s life that mixes historical accounts with some legends and its own original scenes. For some reason this is all wrapped in the premise of people way far in the future going to the past cause they overheard aliens talking about a plan
that has Cleopatra’s name in it.
Either way none of this would be worth talking about as something bad after all there’s nothing inherently wrong with alternative history plots that stray from historical facts for drama. What breaks the story elements of this movie apart is that it can’t find balance between comedy, surreal and arty segments and the drama. When it wants to be funny it is actually hilarious at times and when it goes for the surreal a lot of the time it is beautiful and captivating but when it goes for drama there’s a sharp contrast. Cleopatra most of the time speeds over the moments that would humanize the characters or make you really care or sympathize with them so when it comes to tragedy or joy it’s hard to get those emotions out of the movie, so more likely response is just “so what, when’s this scene gonna end”. The movie lasts just sightly under 2 hours but thanks to all the serious segments it feels like all 3.
Luckily there’s a lot more to this than drama that makes this movie easy to recommend to anyone with passing interest. First of all the comedy is really good a lot of the time. With old shows and movies there’s sometimes a concern about how it aged. What was hilarious 40 or 50 years ago might be puzzling now but Cleopatra is not an example of that. The humor is surprisingly really damn inventive and even if something falls flat the movie never lingers on it and instead offers something different at a steady rate. I couldn’t expect a movie made in 1970 to feel so fresh.
The second and probably bigger attribute of enjoyment is how wild this movie gets with its visuals. That is evident right from the start because for some reason the movie opens up on live action footage with 2D faces drawn over actors and one of first visuals in Egypt you get is a psychedelic montage of romans massacring people in a way that’s simultaneously gruesome and cartoony way. Somewhere closer to the middle there’s a parade in Rome which consists out of pretty damn detailed animations that parody some famous paintings from many different styles. It’s just wild and even though it doesn’t persist throughout the entire movie there’s still a lot here to entertain the eye.
Just in case the hentai tag concerns you, don’t worry, it’s really hard to characterize this movie as erotic despite the story having a lot to do with seduction and sex. Yes there’s boobs, yes there’s sex on the screen but it’s so cartoony and sometimes surreal that it makes Titanic seem like hardcore german porn in comparison.
In short, the story is poorly written and not engaging but the comedy and visuals make up for it. It’s not great but definitely a unique watch.
This movie really is a big, hot mess. It's all over the place, and never seems to really figure out what kind of movie it wants to be.
This is the second in the triumvirate of movies from Mushi Productions, coming on the heels of the more successful (and eminently more watchable) 1001 Nights.
It falls flat on its face at the very start, opening with a ten-minute futuristic sequence, where three agents are sent to the past (Cleopatra's time) to find out the secret of the "Cleopatra Plan", which aliens are trying to use to
conquer future Earth. Borderline unwatchable, as it's live-action people with poorly animated heads painted on top. And outside of about thee minutes at the end, and a handful of minor references to this little envelope of an idea in the middle of the film, it's pretty much meaningless.
Is it a sex show? Not really, there are some sex scenes, and lots of casual nudity, but it's more in the category of raunch than titillation. This was billed (when released in English) as an X-rated sexual romp, but it was so tame that many moviegoers asked for their money back.
Is it a comedy? Well, that's closer to the mark, as many of the great characters (like Ptolemy) are played for laughs. More like punctuated satire that falls flat in most cases. A little bit of slapstick, and a little bit of farce.
Is it a historical drama? Well, it does very (and I mean very) loosely follow the life of Cleopatra and Caesar and Alexander and Octavian. But, with a far too liberal dose of creative license to even make the claim of historical accuracy in any form. And many times they throw in completely unrelated (and unnecessary bits), either for humor or for variety. Like a handgun during the gladiator scene. Or (literally) the Ides of March acted out in the form of a Noh drama. Or, for some reason, two seconds of Astro Boy.
Is it an experimental piece? Not as much as the earlier 1001 Nights, which really played around with formats quite a bit. But they definitely do delve at times into experimental animation techniques, either because they want to show off, or because they think it might be 'interesting'. For the most part, though, it's just another bit of drudge to endure.
While this may be an interesting piece of historical animation, that by no means makes it "good". Or, for that matter, worth watching. And unless you are a Tezuka completist, or really into the history of anime, you should give it a pass.
This summer, American arthouse theaters screen one of the craziest anime films ever made, an erotic pseudo-historical musical acid trip produced by Osamu Tezuka in 1973. Learn about what makes Belladonna of Sadness a one-of-a-kind experience. Content Warning: discussion of sexual violence