Listen to this episode of the Movies We Dig podcast, featuring me talking about this film! https://www.movieswedig.com/podcast/episode-34-cleopatra-1970/
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.