A key insight for Osamu Tezuka's work, I think, is that he was willing to try anything once, if not always succeed. In 1969, his animation studio Mushi Productions released A Thousand And One Nights, the first of three attempts at creating feature-film animated projects for adults collectively called "Animerama". Nights is a curious project even by Tezuka's most outré standards — alternately visionary and puerile, in the same way Ralph Bakshi's own animation-for-adults projects pushed buttons and boundaries while also being hidebound by their own juvenile tastes. But it's a fascinating time capsule, and the story as a whole is reminiscent of one of Tezuka's own adult manga in its scope and sweep.
The original Arabian folk tales that comprise the Nights were never meant to be a cohesive story, save for the framing device of Scheherazade spinning each of these stories in quick succession to save her neck. Tezuka's Nights does away with the framing device entirely and cuts right to the action. It gives us Aldin, a free-spirited merchant (shilling for con man) who wanders out of the desert and into Baghdad, bearing "medicinal water from the Nile". At the slave market, a young woman for sale, Milliam, catches his eye. He snatches her away, and the two hide out in a castle and make love.
Then the authorities descend upon them. Aldin is tortured terribly, but manages to escape, Count Of Monte Cristo-style, while Milliam bears their child — a girl she names Jallis — and then perishes. Aldin's adventures lead him far and wide — into the cave of the Forty Thieves, onto an island of women whose seductions prove deadly, across the high seas by way of a magic boat (where he becomes the Sinbad of legend), and back to Baghdad where he assumes the throne by way of magic, sweat, and some fast thinking.
It's in this last chapter that the picaresque, episodic nature of the story finally adds all the way up. The adult Jallis, whom Aldin has never met in person, captures his eye, but she has eyes for a humble lover of her own, Aslan. Irony of ironies: If Aldin doesn't realize he is re-enacting the very same cycle of cruelty and arrogant power that separated him and Jallis in the first place, he'll end up committing an entirely new sin at least as great.
High arts and low comedies
All of this, again, has the flavor of a Tezuka manga for adults — a mix of silly and serious, low comedy and high tragedy. The way Tezuka handled this in his manga varied greatly, but for the most part, sexuality was a subordinate element there — one of a mix of things best suited for adult audiences. At its worst, it was essentially spice, as when the deviant antihero of MW (easily his cruelest and most blatantly nihilistic story) turns out also to be a bi- or maybe omni-sexual pervert. But the one flavor that comes through most is the way Tezuka's longer adult works had braided, multilayered plotlines. It takes a while for all the threads to tie together in Nights, but once they finally do it's surprisingly complex.
By today's standards, the actual adult-ness of Nights is fairly tame: nudity above the waist, some innuendo. What's dated that part of it most is how once this stuff would have been unheard of in an animated film; today, nudity in anime is so readily available it's downright tedious. What Tezuka and his director Eiichi Yamamoto do that's creative, though, is use the erotic imagery as the starting point for out-and-out psychedelia — e.g., a scene on the women's island where countless nude bodies flow and merge into each other like running rivers. These moments play like rehearsals for the third and final (and arguably best) Animerama production Belladonna Of Sadness, which was almost nothing but the psychedelia. I also liked the other ways the film experiments with animation as a medium — e.g., when it uses animation atop a simple live-action backdrop, or when the animators build and film live-action miniatures for the cityscapes instead of just panning across a picture-scroll backdrop.
I am always curious how modern viewers, people who have little or no sense of animation history and who are not obliged to have such things, react to projects like this. Sometimes to their eyes it just looks old and crude and weird. Other times, though, it feels fresh and new precisely because it's a style and a mode that fell out of fashion but is now being rediscovered and reinvigorated. I felt the same way about Funeral Parade Of Roses: there, as here, the sexual politics were more likely to date the film in a bad way than its stylistic excesses were. (All the eroticism here is strictly male-gaze.)
Jacques Barzun once said something to the effect that if you tag any work of art with the label "experimental", you need to be willing to concede that the experiment may have failed. I'd amend that to say it's a matter of the audience at hand. The best audiences for the Animerama experiment in general are Tezuka fans, fans of animation as a medium generally, and compulsive seekers of the bizarre and offbeat — in other words, people willing to try anything once, even if it doesn't always succeed.