I'm always going to be grateful that the Animerama productions — the animated theatrical features for adults produced by Osamu Tezuka and Eiichi Yamamoto — have now all been restored for English-speaking audiences. They're milestones, and they deserve to be seen by anyone curious about animation as an art form. But where they excel as milestones or animation-art showcases, they stumble as entertainment or even coherent storytelling. Cleopatra, the second project in the series, is so willfully bizarre that it almost merits being seen for that reason alone. Like A Thousand And One Nights before it, it showcases techniques and design styles that seem fresh and new simply because they've been out of vogue for so long, and for that reason alone it's worth a viewing. But it feels like it leaves too many of its best ideas on the table.
Forward into the past!
I have seen Cleopatra before, by way of a fansubbed edition that included a note by the fansubbers over the opening credits that what we were about to see would make absolutely no sense whatsoever. (Their wording was a good deal stronger.) Sure enough, the opening sequences don't at first seem to have anything to do with the title subject: they're set far in the future, and involve a trio of ... spies? agents? ... who are depicted by having crudely animated faces drawn over live-action footage of actors. Their mission, even if they don't choose to accept it, is to determine the nature of a threat to the human race by having their consciousnesses projected back into the bodies of hosts who lived thousands of years ago.
Then the title makes sense, as the three of them are dropped into what amount to supporting roles in a sword-and-sandal historical epic about Cleopatra's reign. One ends up as Lybia, handmaiden to Cleopatra; another is Ionius, a Greek enslaved by the Romans; and a third has the terrible bad luck (from his perspective, that is) to end up in the body of a pet leopard. The leopard's owned by a sorceress who uses her magic to give Cleopatra irresistible good looks, the better to seduce and destroy Julius Caesar and later Octavian, and thus get revenge for the way Rome has subjugated Ptolemaic Egypt. As anyone who's studied history is able to say, it doesn't end well.
All of this is played off as a sort-of spoof of the way Hollywood has approached this kind of material, employing anachronisms and throwaway gags and Tezuka's trademark oddities in every corner of the frame. It's mainly a showcase for all the ways Tezuka and Yamamoto were able to take what in another movie would be a stock sequence and flip it on its ear somehow. I liked the way Caesar's assassination is staged like a kabuki play, down to the flutes and wood-block clappers on the soundtrack. I was also amused at how Cleopatra's suicide by asp takes place inside a pyramid/motel, where pharaohs check in but they don't check out. Or, rather, they check out for keeps.
Funny ha-ha, or funny weird?
My main hangup with the movie is that it brings up things that might well have led to a genuinely interesting movie, or at the very least a more consistently funny one, but doesn't follow through on them. At one point the guest in Ionius's body provides him with information on how to make hand grenades and guns, something even Ionius isn't sure he knows how he can do. Aha, I thought; now we'll see the consequences of tampering with history! But the idea is discarded about as quickly as it's entertained, and the story we do get has nowhere nearly as much to it. (The entire wraparound plot involving the time travelers turns out to be the reddest of herrings.)
Stanley Edgar Hyman, in writing about J.F. Powers's Morte D'Urban, noted that the novel was "comic in the wrong sense, meaning frivolous." Cleopatra seems similarly afflicted. The truest humor is not in the story itself but the filmmaking, as when Tezuka and Yamamoto take Cleopatra's entry into Rome and style-transfer everyone from Donatello to Picasso onto the proceedings. A movie made of nothing but this kind of stylistic outlandishness would have been more fun. In fact, Tezuka has done just such things in other animated projects; likewise, with Belladonna Of Sadness, with which Yamamoto followed Cleopatra, the visuals were the movie, and the story had more genuine ambition to boot. But Cleopatra can't decide whether it just wants to be a stylistic showcase or a functioning parody (or satire, or bedroom farce); it starves to death between both of those bales of hay.
All of this I am willing to set aside when considering Cleopatra as an artifact of its time, or a milestone in Tezuka's career or in animation history generally. It functions best as a showcase for Tezuka's ingenuity as a visualizer — e.g., when Cleopatra and Caesar make love, and their bodies dissolve into so many throbbing abstract geometries, or when Cleopatra receives her new body by way of a makeover that seems inspired by the work of a pizza chef. It's worth having Cleopatra back in print to savor those things, even if I felt it shortchanges itself elsewhere.