Second in Osamu Tezuka’s so-called “Animerama” trilogy of adult-oriented erotic anime, Cleopatra actually played grind-house theatres in the States, misleadingly marketed as xxx porn under the title Cleopatra: Queen of Sex. Imagine all those porno patrons puzzling over the opening scene: a spaceship streaks above planet Earth. A stunningly composed live action shot, it immediately evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and reminds us Stanley Kubrick once approached Tezuka to design the visual effects for his groundbreaking space saga.
Meanwhile, Isao Tomita blends sitar, classical music and folk rock into an amazing soundtrack that recalls the trippier side of Ennio Morricone. We segue into a futuristic metropolis where, doing the reverse of cult cartoon Clutch Cargo, real actors perform with cartoon heads! Make no mistake, this is no ordinary cartoon porn.
Three time travellers: Jiro, Maria, and Rupo journey back to ancient Egypt, itching to learn whether the real Queen Cleopatra’s fabled sexual prowess matches her myth. Their trippy, temporal odyssey rockets past still images of historical personages like Napoleon and President Richard Nixon. Unrest in Alexandria is illustrated via a Mad Magazine montage: gory, yet cartoony images show rape, murder, bestiality and a Roman legionnaire peeking up a little girl’s skirt. Chaos reigns until an oddly green-skinned Julius Caesar (Hajime Hana) deposes the cowardly Pharaoh. An Egyptian resistance group send their plump, homely princess to a mad scientist’s lab (lookout for a cameo from Frankenstein’s monster!) where, after an alchemical transformation, she emerges as svelte sex goddess Cleopatra (Chinatsu Nakayama). Delivered naked inside a sack to the unsuspecting Caesar, she swiftly seduces the Roman dictator, who proclaims her Queen.
Meanwhile, our time travellers transplant their minds into the bodies of historical bit-players. Maria becomes Lybia (Mineko Yoshimura), a bare-breasted ingénue in league with Cleopatra. Stoic Jiro becomes Ionius (Nobuo Tsukamoto), a blonde gladiator who rises through the ranks before falling for Lybia. The unfortunate Rupo, having earlier boasted he’d bed Cleopatra, winds up inhabiting her pet leopard. Hopelessly horny, the jungle cat keeps trying to cop a feel or hump the oft-naked queen. He eventually relents and mates with a blue panther, siring a litter of multicoloured cubs! Following the birth of their son and Caesar’s subsequent murder, Cleopatra uses her keen mind and sexual allure to help build a kingdom powerful enough to rouse the ire of Rome.
Cleopatra was something of a financial disaster in Japan, partly caused by defecting animators and a backhanded takeover bid at Tezuka’s company, Mushi Pro., but also due to his own reckless experimentation. Always a restless innovator, Tezuka self-indulged in radical artistic flourishes that range from dazzling (a parade through Rome recreates famous artworks by Degas, Picasso, Botticelli, Hieronymus Bosch, and more), to alienating (Caesar’s murder performed as a piece of kabuki theatre), and often to the detriment of his story. Cameos from popular anime characters including Sazae-san, Tezuka’s own Astro Boy, and Rat Man from Spooky Kitaro (1968) co-exist with violence, surrealism, slapstick (Caesar dosed with a powerful laxative!) and softcore love scenes.
The sex is artfully rendered and often avant-garde as when a pair of undulating lines on a white background slowly morph from abstract shapes into furiously copulating lovers. Or a strikingly sensual set-piece wherein naked Cleopatra, soaping in a bathtub, sings the theme song whilst being orally pleasured. Surely a screen first. Tezuka experiments with split-screen and ambient sound collages, although the erotic frisson derives as much from Chinatsu Nakayama’s sexy vocals as his innovative animation.
In America, distributors attempts to cash-in on the success of Fritz the Cat (1972) drew critical flak, with Tezuka’s film dismissed as “kiddie stuff with breasts.” Yet whereas Ralph Bakshi and Robert Crumb hid their misogyny under a cloak of countercultural libertarianism, the “Animerama” trilogy (which includes A Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1969) and Tragedy of Belladonna (1973)) deals with sex in a more sophisticated, multifaceted way. Tezuka includes bare-breasted maidens and raunchy sex in abundance, but also historical insight and political skulduggery. His Cleopatra is both wily femme fatale and a pawn in the machinations of others.
While the film delivers the scale and spectacle we expect from an historical epic, the sci-fi subplot seems an unnecessary conceit and our time-travellers all too often forgotten. The plot rushes through Cleopatra’s later affair with Mark Anthony (Osami Nabe), portrayed unconventionally as a feeble-minded fool who imagines himself as Napoleon. He can’t even achieve an erection until Cleo feeds him a banana. There is a touch of Up Pompeii about the climactic amusing episode, wherein Egyptian women overcome Roman invaders by shagging them senseless and the whole city shakes to the rhythm of their lovemaking, yet proves a sophisticated bit of naughtiness. Cleopatra was Tezuka’s last feature film for eight years until his comeback with Bandar Book: One Million A.D. (1978).