Adult Animation Makes a Wild and Wonderful Debut in Anime Rendition of Arabian Nights
DIRECTED BY: EIICHI YAMAMOTO/1969
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 24, 2020
“Action, fantasy, humor, suspense, spectacles, and superbly sensual eroticism!” All these and more are promised in A Thousand & One Nights, the landmark first adult animated feature. And while it may not succeed at all its lofty goals, it certainly managed to open a whole new world for animation.
Appropriately released in 1969, A Thousand & One Nights is the first entry in Mushi Productions’ Animerama trilogy of erotic animated features, followed by Cleopatra (1970) and Belladonna of Sadness (1973). All three films were helmed by director Eiichi Yamamoto, with studio founder Osamu Tezuka contributing writing to this first entry and Cleopatra, both of which are available on Blu-Ray courtesy of Discotek Media. A bold, experimental first attempt at presenting an animated feature for adults, A Thousand & One Nights features a laundry list of future titans of animation, all trying to push the medium in unique ways.
The idiosyncratic fairy tale narrative, eclectic visual style, and singular score all coalesce into a messy, at times frustrating film that won’t appeal to everyone. But there are some truly fun, thrilling, and even beautiful moments throughout, and seeing so many talented artists pushing narrative and visual boundaries in the typically far more rigid realm of feature animation is incredibly exciting to even more casual animation enthusiasts. If the content of the film itself isn’t enough, then Discotek’s release with its lovingly restored English adaptation – presented here for the first time since its original theatrical exhibition – and variety of extra features is sure to satisfy.
A Thousand & One Nights is divided into two major parts. The first begins with the water merchant Aldin, a lecherous scoundrel with heart of something like gold, as he arrives in the city of Baghdad. There, he meets and falls in love with the slave girl Miriam, stealing her away from the chief of police’s son and slipping into hiding. Miriam falls for her liberator, and the two make love as the chief of police sends the scheming Badli to recapture Miriam and arrest Aldin. Badli contracts the services of Havasalakum and his band of thieves to recapture Miriam, the marauders returning her to the chief of police’s estate while Aldin is sentenced to the torture chambers then executed. When Aldin manages to escape imprisonment, he finds that Badli has schemed to make Miriam his own, and that she has died in childbirth. Wracked with grief, the water merchant heads out into the desert, wandering the wastes as he tries to forget his past and finding himself in a series of adventures. A brief romance with the bandit leader’s daughter Madia, acquiring a magic hobby-horse that allows Aldin to fly through the air, a seeming island paradise for the lecher, populated by women who are revealed to transform into man-sized serpents, an encounter with the mystical Roc and later a man-eating triclops, all culminating in Aldin’s discovery of a magic boat that will grant his every material desire.
The film’s second half takes place 15 years later, opening on the antics of a pair of imps named Djinn and Genie, as they spy on the shepherd Aslan. Genie has fallen for the young man, so her partner Djinn tricks her into introducing him to Jalis, daughter of Miriam. The pair to fall for each other, but Badli intercedes in their romance, promising Miriam to the caliph as a member of his harem and imprisoning Aslan to keep the pair apart. The power-hungry Badli also has his eyes on an arriving nobleman who might pose a threat to the caliph, a returning Aldin under the assumed identity of Sinbad the sailor. Clashes with robbers, betrayals, contests of wealth, weird gags, star-crossed lovers, and massive set pieces round-out the film, all concluding with an Aldin in much the same place he started, albeit perhaps a bit wiser.
A Thousand & One Nights struggles against a concise summary, with its slightly disjointed narrative and rapid transition between set pieces, characters, and wildly differing tones. It can drag at points, the occasional sidebar overstaying its welcome, but in general the viewer is kept engaged with the action by the melodrama. A quirk of the film – and something that permeates much of Tezuka’s work – is the considerable use of absurd visual gags in humor, often in scenes surrounding the melodrama or even within a particularly dramatic scene. While I largely didn’t have any issues with this, it’s something that will understandably repel some viewers. A more significant failing of the film to reach its lofty goals is its inability to succeed as erotica, though there are a few more delicately handled moments that manage to achieve something like it.
Despite the tonal ping ponging in the film, Aldin serves as a narrative anchor throughout. We have interludes with other members of the cast certainly, and some are a bit overlong, but the narrative focuses its attention on him in a way that avoids too many issues in parsing the story. Aldin himself is a likable enough as roguish figure through much of the film, despite his more problematic aspects. Yet, those more fraught elements do compliment a certain mythological quality the film holds, the notion of a hero in the classical sense rather than as a bastion of moral purity. Much like the tone, it’s something that all viewers understandably won’t be able to get past, but I would be remiss to consider an outright failing.
However, while I am able to accept a lot of the film’s stranger qualities, there are issues that must be addressed regarding its depiction of women and the Middle East. For a film that aims to push boundaries in many aspects, the women of A Thousand & One Nights are largely helpless dolls, bitter victims, or literal snakes and man-eaters, all defined by their relationships to men. While Jalis offers something of a passive resistance to demands made of her, both she and Miriam are defined by their relationship to the men in their lives and lack any real autonomy. Genie is able to do a bit more, but spends most of her time pining after Aslan or bickering with Djinn, serving mostly as a magical means to propel the narrative forward. Lastly and perhaps most frustrating is Madia, at times as capable as a warrior, but so frequently a victim of rejection and sexual violence against her. Even at the very end, when she finally manages some measure of retribution against those who hurt her, she is undone by her one-sided romance with Aldin. In a better film, one that allowed Madia more internality, it would be a genuinely tragic scene, but instead it just reads as mean-spirited and unnecessarily cruel.
The depiction of the Middle East is itself compromised, but not in quite such a ubiquitous fashion. The exotic, highly sexualized, socially regressive presentation of the region is common, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. It is mitigated slightly by the fantasy of it all and the origins of many of the tales, but one must keep in mind that the text from which so much of A Thousand & One Nights is not a straightforward presentation of the original folk tales. Rather, the version that is used as the basis for this and many other works adapting these folk tales is derived from a translation heavily filtered and often revised to appeal more to European sensibilities, in a fashion not dissimilar to the original publication of the Uncle Reemus stories in the United States. Despite the shortcomings that crop up from this, it’s notable that the actual character designs and major cast generally avoid harmful stereotyping without much whitewashing. While the background is peppered with a handful of gross stereotypes, key figures like Aldin and Aslan are presented as handsome and not made into total caricatures while not simply reflecting European characteristics with a darker skin tone. One may squint at the variety of hues used for some skin tones on a few characters, like Badli’s blue, but at worst it reads as a thoughtless quirk rather than malice.
The visual design as a whole is a considerable improvement on Mushi Productions’ television output, employing many of the amenities expected of the leap to feature animation while also making use of numerous elements of stylization uncommon at the time. A far greater variety of colors is employed in the palette and especially the additional shading on characters adds considerable depth and visual interest to A Thousand & One Nights that was uncommon even in Disney’s feature animation. Traditionally painted backgrounds are often gorgeous, particular the interiors of homes in Baghdad which are full of attractive patterns and vibrant hues. The storyboarding is generally much more complex and emotive, with special attention paid to the framing of characters’ eyes. Expressive colors are employed frequently, representing emotions and reflecting the tone of the film better than more realistic coloring would. Sequences of stills and limited animation evoking comic panels, the subdivision of the frame to show multiple shots, and the use of detailed, painterly still frames contribute more to the sense of style, anticipating the work of director Osamu Dezaki who himself served on A Thousand and One Nights as a key animator.
Unfortunately, some of these forward thinking ideas don’t bear as much fruit, particularly much of the experimentation with background design. The detailed miniatures are one such element, resulting in a variety of issues. While the sweeping shots of Baghdad in the opening stand out for the impressive model work and moody lighting, most are far more clumsily implemented. The approach to the island of the Lamia is perhaps the most egregious; an overlong shot that suffers from the camera’s constant shaking and highlights possibly the weakest model set of the bunch. A later attempt at integrating model backgrounds with animated figures is similarly fraught, as animated figures are misaligned and left floating in mid-air, their thick outlines contrasting sharply against the background as issues with cel placement result in jittery, unconvincing movement. Lastly, there is an attempt to integrate tinted, live-action footage with animated characters and illustrated backgrounds that doesn’t quite land. The constant movement in the live-action footage only draws attention to instances where the characters are still or only employ very limited animation. These issues are not too terribly common, but when they do appear are rather egregious.
The quality of A Thousand & One Nights animation is similarly uneven. While far better than the contents of Mushi Pro’s television output, it is still rather limited, particularly when compared to the animated features of rival studio Toei like 1968’s Horus: Prince of the Sun or 1969’s The Wonderful World of Puss ‘N Boots. The film is littered with layering errors, jerky movements, and an overuse of looping animation that stands out prominently. While many of the stylistic techniques along with the greater detail and more complex composition help mitigate these issues, they are so pervasive that even the most forgiving viewer is likely to be distracted by them. That being said, there is still plenty of wonderful key art by a bevy of future greats mixed in with the weaker moments. The dances of Aldin’s mermaid and the caliph’s golden idol, Aldin’s duel with Badli, and Havasalakum’s final battle stand out are just some of the more outstanding pieces of animation. The animation in the love scenes is particularly notable. The fluid visual abstraction employed by animator Gisaburo Sugii in these sequences is particularly transfixing and even poetic. Little quirks and expressive poses, along with some ambitious animation of perspective in 3D space also add to the film’s visual appeal and help to counterbalance the deficiencies elsewhere.
The music of A Thousand & One Nights is just as varied and distinct as its visuals and narrative. The film is primarily scored by rock band The Helpful Soul with a handful of orchestral tracks by Isao Tomita. The two sounds contrast each other from the opening, with a funky theme full of fuzz guitar scoring Aldin’s trek through the desert before transitioning into the opening titles’ lavish orchestration and choir. Many of the tracks from The Helpful Soul are similar, usually a lot of coarse fuzz guitar and light on vocals, usually employing wailing or calls of “Aldin”, with only a few seemingly ad-libbed words included. Tomita’s score is wonderful, full and at times jazzy, but is typically reserved for major set pieces, especially those employing the miniatures. Some might take issue with The Helpful Soul’s music, particularly the track that plays during the torture sequence, but overall I find their material charming, and it complements the more stylized sequences well.
The thought-lost English dub is presented excellently here, despite some issues that were likely tied to the initial recording. The performances are unexpectedly strong, with delivery usually only suffering from adherence to lip-flap resulting in some rushed lines. Otherwise, they’re flush with character, with stand-outs including the effectively oily but charming Badli and the dry, genuinely funny performances for Djinn and Genie. The translation is loose and fairly adaptive, but doesn’t dramatically alter the meaning or primary intent of most scenes, even enhancing the comedy of Djinn and Genie a bit. It is slightly edited, but more for time than content, trimming the film down to just under two hours, relieving some of the pacing issues. What is lost is a more detailed explanation of Aldin’s escape from the torture chamber, Aldin’s brief time as a crewman of a ship, and Badli’s murder of Jalis’s nursemaid, but the narrative is still perfectly understandable without these scenes.
The Blu-Ray release by Discotek Media continues to reflect the high quality typical of their output. Aside from the film itself, the lost English dub is the biggest draw, with the excellently restored opening titles reinserting segments of the background that are actually absent in the original Japanese print, covered up by an unattractive field grey. Aside from the dub, there is a feature commentary by the always excellent anime historian and author Helen McCarthy, who offers sharply delivered and elegantly phrased insights throughout. Trailers are also included, along with a compelling, nearly hour long interview with director Eiichi Yamamoto.
A Thousand & One Nights is a bold, experimental, wonderful, messy, frustrating film. It’s laden with issues, from its failure at achieving “superbly sensual eroticism”, at times meandering narrative, problematic stereotyping and sexism, and myriad technical errors. Yet, in spite of these issues I can’t help but recommend the film. The creative experimentation with presentation and style along with adult content that pushed the boundaries of what could be depicted in feature animation would make it interesting on its own. However, the various successful attempts at stylization and compelling animation and soundtrack, packaged in a distinctive narrative are what allow me to more heartily recommend A Thousand & One Nights,if not to all audiences. Anyone with an interest in anime or underground animation should at least give it a look, and those interested in the development and history of the medium should be sure to grab a copy of Discotek’s release.