Sisyphus (1974)

2 min.

A powerful hand-drawn short by Hungarian animator Marcell Jankovics. It premiered in the US at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1974 and was nominated for Best Animated Short at the Academy Awards in 1975. It was also featured in a car commercial during the Super Bowl in 2008.



Cleopatra [クレオパトラ] (1970, NSFW)

Written and directed by famed animator Osamu Tezuka with Eichi Yamamoto co-directing, this sci-fi/fantasy/history sex romp was a total box office bust. It was the second of three feature-length adult-themed films produced for the “Animarama” series by Mushi Productions and contributed directly to the company’s bankruptcy not long after its release.

It was released in the US in 1972 as Cleopatra, Queen of Sex by Xanadu Productions, which marketed the film as the first pornographic animated film to get an X rating. But the rating was Xanadu’s own creation (not bestowed by MPAA), nor was it the first X-rated cartoon (Fritz the Cat claimed that title by debuting a week before Cleopatra, Queen of Sex), and it wasn’t exactly pornographic. All of this meant that audiences were really confused and irritated by the film.

Summarizing this film is a challenge, but here is a bare-bones outline: Three humans decide to travel back in time to understand “the Cleopatra Plan” that aliens intend to deploy in order to destroy humanity. The trio disguise themselves as members of the Egyptian court and get involved with a group of Egyptian rebels who enlist Cleopatra in their plan to seduce Julius Caesar and murder him, and thereby overthrow Roman rule. The plan doesn’t work, however, as Cleopatra falls in love with Julius Caesar, who, after making her queen of Egypt, returns to Rome and is killed there. She goes on to fall in love with Mark Antony and to continue the plan by seducing Augustus, but this also fails because he is gay and uninterested in her. She commits suicide over her loss and failure, while the time travelers return to the future just in time to stop the aliens from using sex and seduction to take over the earth.

Needless to say, the plot of Cleopatra is extremely convoluted and has many more twists and turns than I’ve outlined here. (Animation historian Fred Patten has a wonderfully detailed summary of the film and its reception here and you can watch it in full with Spanish subtitles here). Sometimes it is dramatic, sometimes it is funny, and often it is disturbing, with graphic scenes of rape and physical violence. And while it does aim for historical accuracy at times, there are many deliberate moments of anachronism and general “WTF?” weirdness.  One highlight that I appreciated is the depiction of the assasination of Julius Caesar in the style of a kabuki drama.  Overall, the animation is great, as is the music — both have that distinctively 70s vibe that I love — and I think there is a lot more to unpack about this film in terms of what it was trying to do and how the figure of Cleopatra was perceived in Japanese culture during this period, but the whole affair is definitely one of the wackiest takes on Roman history that I’ve encountered in modern animation.


Tezuka’s Adult Features: “Cleopatra” (1970)

Allegro Non Troppo: “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (1976)

This feature-length Italian film, directed by Bruno Bozzetto, is a parody of Disney’s Fantasia. It features six animated vignettes which are interspersed with live-action black and white scenes showing the fictional animator, orchestra, conductor and filmmaker commenting and working on the production of the film in a humorous fashion.

Two of its animated episodes derive their subject matter directly from Fantasia — the first of these is the first vignette in Allegro non Troppo set to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which was inspired by the Centaur scene set to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. In this story, an elderly satyr pursues nymphlike nude female figures, all in a failed effort to restore the virility and good looks of his youth. The erotic yet humorous storyline depicts the humiliation of the satyr as he grows ever smaller in size. The scene ends on a peaceful note, with the landscape traversed by the satyr transformed into a woman’s body.


Aesop’s Fables (1971)

A 30-minute made for TV movie starring Bill Cosby as Aesop, produced by Lorimar Productions. Live-action interspersed with animated segments featuring the stories “The Tortoise and the Eagle” and “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

In 1990-91, Cosby would play Aesop again in a series of six 30-minute films, each featuring one animated fable.


Icarus and the Wise Men [Икар и мудрецы] (1976)

This eight-minute Soviet production from 1976 by famed animator Fyodor Khitruk for Soyuzmultfilm transforms the story of Icarus from one of hubris and heedlessness into one of ingenuity and perseverance, as the hero keeps trying to find new ways to fly, in spite of the skepticism and narrowmindedness of the community elders (whose views are expressed in pithy Latin phrases). The motif of resistance to authority, which is so prevalent in 1970s animation, is on clear display here, as is Khitruk’s distinctive and imaginative artistic style. In the midst of the period of detente from the Cold War, “Icarus and the Wise Men” offers its audience a simple yet profound philosophical meditation on the ideas of freedom, creativity and daring in the face of cynicism and opposition.

Khitruk went on to direct another Classically-themed short in 1982 called “Olympians,” which is filled with imagery of the ancient games and which itself was influenced by the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.


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