Based on the collection of Far Eastern fairytales, this is the first and greatest of Osamu Tezuka’s so-called “Animerama” trilogy of erotic anime aimed at an adult audience. Funky fuzz guitar accompanies our anti-hero Aladdin (voiced by Yukio Aoshima) - drawn to resemble French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo - as he strides out of the desert towards Baghdad. The humble water-seller falls in love with beautiful Miriam (Kyôko Kishida), whom he rescues from the slave market before she is forced to marry Havahslakum, spoiled son of the chief of police. The lovers spend a passionate night in a deserted house, unaware they are being watched by a pervert named Suleiman. Police arrest Aladdin on suspicion of Suleiman’s murder and one year later, a heartbroken Miriam dies in childbirth.
But the real murderer is Badli (Hiroshi Akutagawa), right hand of the chief of police, who has been letting Kamhakim (Asao Koike) and his forty thieves run riot to make his boss look incompetent. Playing all sides, Badli arranges secret trysts between Kamhakim and the chief’s wanton wife, but also rapes the king of thieves’ feisty, flame-haired daughter Madhya (Sachiko Ito) to break her spirit. A vengeful Aladdin escapes jail and bests Badli in a slow-motion knife fight amidst a sandstorm, but spares his life. Sidetracked by discovering the treasure cave of the forty thieves, Aladdin persuades Madhya to flee with him aboard her magical flying wooden unicorn - an eye-popping set-piece that mixes 3-D models and traditional animation in ways that recall Max Fleischer and pays tribute to The Thief of Baghdad (1940).
After discovering an island populated by hundreds of gorgeous naked nymphomaniacs with supernatural powers, Aladdin succumbs to temptation and disenchanted Madhya abandons him. This leads to an astonishingly sensual orgy scene with Aladdin swarmed by a writhing, sighing carpet of women, which Tezuka renders as an exotic-hued, abstract melange of lips, breasts, buttocks and thighs. His second “Animerama” epic, Cleopatra (1970) re-stage this technique, which arguably achieves sexier results here. However, passion cools after Aladdin discovers they’re really a race of ravenous snake women! He flees and, after a host of adventures, chances upon an enchanted talking ship that grants his every wish.
Fifteen years later, a green genie (Noboru Mitsuya) and his crimson coloured, shapeshifting spouse (Haruko Kato) play matchmakers for handsome shepherd boy Aslan (Isao Hashizume) and the beautiful Yahliz (Kyôko Kishida again), who fall in love after meeting in their dreams. Yahliz is really Aladdin’s daughter, but raised by Badli who perceives the romance as a threat to his plans to marry her to the king and seize the throne. To increase his power, Badli engineers a feud between the king and the newly-arrived, extravagantly wealthy Sinbad, without realising he is really Aladdin in disguise…
One of Tezuka’s grandest achievements, Arabian Nights has the sweep and scope of a Hollywood historical epic and marries a complex, literate story with the illicit spice of soft-core sex. As a piece of animation it is extraordinarily lavish and laden with intricate detail (check out the carpets and tapestries!), with animators experimenting with split-screen, still drawings, frames-within-frames, varying aspects ratios, 3-D and even snippets of live action. Tezuka had earlier worked on the screenplay for Toei’s Sinbad the Sailor (1962), but this film better represents his idiosyncratic style. The sprawling story makes room for a towering pillar of fire straight out of Cecil B. DeMille, a phenomenal duel wherein Sinbad and the King of Baghdad compete to see who has the best toys, and a Ray Harryhausen-style monster mash between a three-eyed ogre and a legendary giant bird called the Roc, but Tezuka weaves in his own wit, philosophical asides and penchant for surreal sight gags and funny animal cameos.
The sex scenes are trippy, artful and genuinely erotic, with lovers morphing into abstract shapes or blossoming flowers, while animators layer the screen in veils of beauty. Ever noticed how many so-called erotic dramas regard sex as dark and destructive. Not so Arabian Nights which, while never ignoring its dangerous side, explores sex in its many facets: a form of discourse, coercion, comfort, spiritual enlightenment, but foremost a celebration of life. An attitude that informs the more celebrated adaptation by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Fate is also a major theme, contrasting those who take charge of destiny with those content to be carried along on the winds of chance. Women fare considerably better here than in Hollywood versions of Arabian Nights, with an array of smart, sexy, proactive heroines, often underestimated by bad guy Badli. The boys however are either pretty or dumb. Or pretty dumb.
If there is a flaw it is that Tezuka weaves such an elaborate yarn, the payoff feels rushed and unsatisfying. Merely a parade of shock revelations and tragedies, although it underlines how flawed a hero Aladdin truly is and ends on a suitably ironic and upbeat note. Strangely, The Anime Encyclopaedia by genre experts Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy, lists a lesbian love scene between Yahliz and the king’s daughter that is nowhere to be seen. But you can’t have everything.