Everquest ate my brain. This review may suck. Perhaps even more than my normal ones. You have been warned.
I'd like to thank the "Japanime 02" film festival for giving me the chance to see this film. According to the introduction the only celluloid copy (in 16mm no less) of the anime in existence, normally housed in a Japanese museum, and available only in exchange for funding restoration work on it. Sounded like someone put some serious work into getting it out here.
Loosely based on the original arabic legend. I have to assume very loosely, because otherwise the story is one of the most shallow but convoluted things i've ever experienced. It begins with the water seller Aldin arriving in the big city. However when he spots a beautiful slave girl being sold he's quick to forget his trade and become a "beautiful naked slave-girl thief". A quick run into the nearest deserted palace and a standing dive into bed for some naughty business. Which of course means she falls deeply in love with him. And then the story starts to get really complicated.
Indeed it's complicated enough I'm not even going to try to explain it. The essence is Aldin gets a chance to have a bit of action, adventure in strange lands and a lot of chances to meet strange women with clothing problems. Along the way he becomes rich, becomes maddened by power, almost commits the ultimate crime against Allah and then escapes the story as he began. You can see bits and pieces of the original story poking through, but it's more an excuse than something valued in its own right.
I got a real laugh out of this one. Having read some background I knew the movie was a historical piece, about as archaic as they come. However it was pretty clear a lot of people in the cinema didn't know that before the show started. The strangers sitting beside me both fell asleep at least once and it was pretty clear that those who had brought dates for some "anime erotica" were more than a little, um, surprised at the result. Starting it off with the terrible American add for the film was a brilliant touch, immediately letting people know what they were in for.
The first thing to mention is that, yes, this show is that old. It carries a powerful sense of history, but relatively little to offer the anime fan who wants the latest and greatest. The animation is crude, the story shallow and the flavor something from an alien time. It's hard to even connect it with modern anime. This is what makes it both terrible and fascinating at the same time.
So what does it have to offer? Well, the first thing it shows is that Americans have been doing terrible things to anime for a lot longer than I thought. The terrible intro add, the dodgy voice acting and the incredibly agressive and dated electric guitar with 70's vocals didn't really add to the experience. Which makes me also wonder about the faithfulness of the dub in a negative way. Some of the writing was so bad that the audience was either grimacing or giggling.
It also shows the foundation of adult anime. As I remember the lore is that this film was made so that Mushi films, the first anime studio, could make some cash to finish their flagship movie. As a result it has erotic content and even a bit of blood and gore. The amusing thing is that the erotic elements are strangely innocent by today's standards. There's a decent amount of nudity, lots of breasts and some suggestive dialog and animation designed to be titilating. Not only is there nothing explicit but they're so delightfully nervous and unsophisticated about it. There's no tension, no focus and no energy in it, so it becomes extremely flat. They know how to draw a breast, but not how to make the opportunity to see the breast a sexual element. Something more modern teen anime has become very good at, even when it contains less explicit nudity. It's almost charming in how naieve it is.
The story, and narrative sequence, is all over the place. Huge jumps, gaps and little coherence to it. The animation is much the same, lacking any sort of consistent feel to it. Strangely enough this is the best bit of the film. It's so obvious that they were making it all up as they went along. As a result there's unexpectedly advanced techniques like live footage being used, and even various mergings of live and animated footage. It doesn't work but it's very interesting. Likewise they're experimenting with backdrops, smoke effects and animation cycling (repeating sequences to save on the number of frames) throughout the film. Not to mention how to represent groups of people in motion. One can't help but feeling that not only did the creators face lots of challenges in the creation (especially meeting the budget) but that they were also willing to experiment above and beyond that. This freedom comes at a cost to the movie, but it's fun for someone trying to see the origin of techniques still used to day.
So in summary the film is too long, and too old, to contain much of interest to those not interested in anime history. Even those who are may find it difficult to connect this movie with more modern material. It really is almost proto-anime. The movie does have some good moments, even for the modern fan, but not nearly enough to fill up 100 minutes. The sense of design is interesting, the way Tezuka's line work is preserved (as well as his ideal of feminine beauty) is fun for those with some grounding in anime history. Some of the character animation is inventive, and some of the larger scenes (the desert battle and tower collapse) are actually quite impressive. But clearly the budget had a great say in how much time could be spent.
Special mention for the "pink" section on the isle of naked women. This was an attempt to express a wild orgy through suggestive imagery and undulating, interlocking, organic curves. It wasn't terribly erotic, but it was certainly unusual and strangely psychedelic. I should also support the "bandits daughter", the only female to show real character in the film. Pretty clear that Tezuka has always felt sympathy for the outlaw.