Osamu Tezuka is God- the Godfather of Manga, that is. His ability to come up with the most imaginative, wild ideas and build a compelling narrative that has everything- from deep, spiritual conversations to dopey slapstick and everything in between is unparalleled. As the world-famous creator of Astroboy (by far one of his least interesting works) Tezuka has influenced pretty much everyone in some form or another, proving over and over how unique and fertile that guy’s mind was.
Less known are his animated films, some of which has the added twist of being made strictly for adults while still maintaining all of the surreal goofiness that characterizes his work. 1970’s Cleopatra is a prime example: somewhere in space, sometime in the future, a race of humans are trying to figure out their enemy’s secret plans, of which their only clue is the word “Cleopatra”. Naturally, the only logical thing to do is to time travel back to Egyptian times and hang out with Cleopatra to figure out what these aliens of the future might have meant.
It gets much weirder, but let’s not spoil the plot, which unfolds at bizarre and unpredictable turns and paces. The thing about Tezuka is, no matter how absurd his premises are, he somehow manages to make them work with his “everything including the kitchen sink” approach. Suddenly depicting the famous murder of Caesar- complete with Shakespearean dialogue- in the style of traditional Kabuki theater, for example, is the type of offbeat genius that makes him the legend he is. That genius is not often apparent in Cleopatra, however- the film is definitely a mess, it’s just a very interesting mess.
Most messy is its odd obsession with sex- everyone is constantly trying to have it with everyone else. This seems to have been motivated by the production team’s desire to prove to the world that animated movies didn’t have to be “just for kids”; ironically, for all the sex in the film, the film is pretty juvenile. Though the filmmakers gave themselves an X rating (clearly for marketing purposes) there is nothing actually pornographic in here- just a lot of boobs and tons of innuendo. The sex is either wacky, or misogynistic, or sophomoric… but it’s not really erotic. Just check out the theme song:
We are monkeys • We break out of our cages • Monkeys are the best • We are pathetic monkeys • We are Pithecanthropus Guerrillatus • Hey hey hey! • Guerrillas, Gorillas • Guerrilla, Guevara • Gewalt • Farewell, laws- they’re the contract of the slave • Bye bye to our pitiful happiness • Adios, everyone • Even if the gods get really mad, we’re monkeys. We don’t care! • We have no mating season • We make love all the time • For some reason, we can’t stop…
That song, in a way, encapsulates an essential Tezuka theme in his work: observing the human species as the goofy animal it is from a detached, humorous, ironic lens that both satirizes and celebrates all our crazy ways. You see this commentary run through Tezuka’s epic Buddha, and you see it here, though done nowhere near as elegantly. Between the oddball sex, the constant anachronisms, random callbacks to Astroboy, scenes of a leopard trying to put the moves on Cleopatra, and a vey conscious butchering of history, Cleopatra is definitely an experience. It’s no surprise that it was a total bomb when it first came out- it’s Cheese with a capitol “C” – but what a unique, out-of-this-world brand of cheese it is.
One thought on “Cleopatra”