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Andrew Osmond goes in search of the animated Arabian Nights

Anime meets the Arabian Nights in the adventure series Magi. Two boys and their allies go on quests with genies, dungeons, villains, monsters and glittering treasure. As always when anime meets mythology, the tales of old become a pick-and-mix buffet for storytellers. As well as the Arabian Nights, Magi stirs in elements from modern videogames and Shonen Jump adventure sagas. (Though if you’re being pedantic, Magi is based on a manga serial that runs in Weekly Shonen Sunday.)

The literary history of the Arabian Nights that underlies Magi is fascinating. The one point that any Magi fan should know to sound erudite is that three of the show’s main characters, Aladdin, Alibaba and Sinbad, are named after famous Arabian Nights heroes. However, none of these heroes were actually in the original collection. Instead, they come from separate Middle Eastern stories, Sindbad added in the middle ages, and the others, usually called “the orphan tales,” bundled into the Arabian Nights when it was brought to the West by the Frenchman Antoine Galland.

However, many Westerners today know the Arabian Nights stories through cinema films, which mixed and matched them just as freely as Magi. In live-action, there are three ‘essential’ Arabian Nights Hollywood adventures, two with the same name. The 1924 Thief of Bagdad is a fabulous silent film epic, featuring the action star Douglas Fairbanks. Its 1940 namesake was made in colour and co-directed by Britain’s Michael Powell; of the two Thiefs, it has more obvious connections with Magi. Like the anime, the film’s hero is a mischievous, pure-hearted boy, played by the Indian actor Sabu. The film also has a memorable gigantic genie, comparable to the ones in Magi and Disney’s Aladdin, but rather less friendly.

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The third great Arabian Nights Hollywood pic is 1958’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, a showcase for the effects of stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen. Demonstrating how these story elements get switched around, the little boy is now a genie, while the monster role is taken by a Cyclops – an interloper from Greek mythology, though a similar beast appeared in the original Sinbad stories.

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Of course, the stories have also been the basis of animation. The oldest surviving animated feature in the world is a beautiful German Arabian Nights adventure called The Adventures of Prince Achmed, made in 1926. These days, the cartoon most people know is Disney’s Aladdin, memorable for its anachronistic comedy riffs by Robin Williams. But here’s a clip from the legendary, ill-fated The Thief and the Cobbler, directed by Richard Williams (no relation). It was in sporadic production in London for more than twenty years, but it was never completed in its intended form. (The version that’s commercially available is a travesty to make the 4Kids Entertainment version of One Piece look like, well, One Piece.) In the clip, the baddie is voiced by the immortal Vincent Price.

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The stories have also been represented in anime, going back at least as far as a feature version of Sinbad the Sailor, made by Toei in 1962. Seven years later, Osamu Tezuka co-directed A Thousand and One Nights, based on his own manga and produced by his studio Mushi (famous for Astro Boy). Tezuka’s film is remarkable; it was an attempt at an adult, sexy cartoon film, more than a decade before the straight-to-video market took anime into such territory.

Tezuka’s film treats sex humorously and reverently. (The original Arabian Nights tales included sexual humour, played up scandalously in the Victorian-baiting nineteenth-century translation by Sir Richard Burton.) A Thousand and One Nights is a film that has arty erotic images of opening flowers and melting limbs, before throwing in a cartoon gag like the one below. It’s possibly NSFW, depending on how you feel about cartoon lionesses.

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A kid-friendlier series followed in 1975, called Arabian Nights: Sinbad’s Adventure, produced by Nippon Animation. (It ran 52 parts; you can see the opening here.) The Arabian Nights anime that most Western fans, know, though, is El Hazard, which took Arabian Nights imagery to another planet in the manner of John Carter. El Hazard’s first and best version was a video series, though TV remakes appeared further down the line.

That brings us up to Magi, a much more mainstream series than El Hazard or A Thousand and One Nights. It’s made by the rising anime studio A-1 Pictures, behind so many recent and current big titles – Sword Art Online, Fairy Tail, Blue Exorcist, Black Butler, Fractale, Birdy the Mighty Decode and Welcome to the Space Show. In Japan, Magi was broadcast at 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoons, so it played to a far wider – and younger – audience than many anime today.

Of course, ‘family’ cartoons in Japan still allow much more than equivalent cartoons would in Britain or America. Magi’s very first episode shows the little boy hero innocently playing with buxom women’s, er, assets! Later episodes have the violence, trauma and peril we expect in adventure anime. The BBFC webpage on the series makes interesting reading if you’re following the show. The BBFC gave it an overall rating of ‘15,’ which is higher than the new RoboCop film!

The little boy in Magi is called Aladdin. Yes, he comes equipped with a giant genie, or djinn as the show prefers to call it.  In an inspired twist, the genie is usually headless, which forces him to communicate through sign language and makes him cuter than most ‘headed’ genies would be. But Aladdin, it soon transpires, has much more than a mere giant genie at his disposal. He’s a fabled “magi,” a wielder of life itself, with an epic destiny ahead of him.

In the first few episodes, Aladdin meets two slightly older youngsters – Alibaba, a youth who dreams of treasure, and Morgiana, an exotic slave girl from a mysterious land, with deadly fighting skills. You could compare Morgiana to other fighting girls in anime such as Claymore and Shikabane Hime. Interestingly, the show rotates the characters in the early episodes, splitting or pairing them up so we see how they act in different company. Naturally, other characters show up down the road, such as a strapping chap called Sinbad…

The storylines take a mix’em up approach in these episodes. The first arc is a straight magic-and-monsters affair. By the end of part one, Alibaba is facing digestion by a giant man-eating plant, before little Aladdin shows up on a flying carpet and chucks down some wine barrels to inebriate the creature. The prominence of alcohol in Magi’s world shows that the series isn’t out to create an authentic Islamic society, though arguably the carnivorous plant told us that.

Dungeon adventures follow, while a later arc feels a bit reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa – not that it has an alien forest, but rather an embattled wilderness tribe with a wise woman and horse milk. Actually, the mise en scene is true to the original Arabian Nights. Despite its Middle Eastern image, the original collection also includes stories from Central Asia, where the tribe arc appears to be set.

Of course, there are character backstories to reveal; a wide world to explore; and a hero’s journey for young Aladdin to tread. This first Magi set only scrapes the surface. In Japan, the show’s second 26-part season is airing, while the manga (by lady artist Shinobu Ohtaka) is at twenty volumes and counting. Time to get started!

Magi Labyrinth of Magic is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment on 24th February.

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