“Belladonna of Sadness” – 2015 Japan Cuts Film Review

Note: This review was based on a low-resolution version of the film.  The 4K restoration of “Belladonna of Sadness” will be screened at Japan Cuts 2015 in New York.

By the mid-1960s in Japan, the adage that sex sells was no truer then as it is now, as pinku eiga, a general label for erotic films in Japan, became a major force to be reckoned with. Though a lot of schlock was turned out by various independent companies, a few genuine auteurs emerged from the genre, and pink film’s popularity made it acceptable for writers and filmmakers not usually associated with erotica to try their hand at the genre.

One of these unlikely auteurs was Osamu Tezuka, anime and manga god of Japan, whose prolific output includes such classic creations like Astro Boy, Black Jack, and Kimba the White Lion. In the early 1960s, Tezuka founded the animation studio Mushi Productions to produce and distribute his most iconic creations. Of all the directors at the studio, the one who probably stands out as being similarly iconoclastic as Tezuka would be Eiichi Yamamoto.

Both men embarked on a trio of erotically charged animated features titled the Animerama (アニメラマ) trilogy.  The first two pictures, “A Thousand & One Nights” (1969) and “Cleopatra” (1970), were daring in the way they tackled their subject matter, but it was the third, “Belladonna of Sadness” (哀しみのベラドンナ, 1973), that blew away the established aesthetic and thematic norms of what animation could be. Free of Tezuka’s influence during the film’s production – the artist left early on to return to comics – Yamamoto delivers a psychotropic escapade that is rife in phallic imagery but offers numerous interpretations as to what exactly was he trying to express with this film.

Adapted from a supposed occult book on the history of witchcraft during the Middle Ages, and born during a time of great civil unrest in Japan and the rest of the world, Yamamoto runs wild as he appropriates various –isms – surrealism, expressionism, Dadaism, etc. – to visually express the humiliations, degradations and martyrdom of his leading lady Jeanne, voice acted by Aiko Nagayama.  The plot is, at first, a standard revenge story. Jeanne is happily married to Jean, a kind but weak-willed man. Before the young couple can consummate their marriage, the king and his cohorts exercise their regal authority and rape Jeanne. When she returns to Jean, the couple’s idyllic dreams for a happy life are continually shattered as a whole host of characters use and abuse Jeanne for their own purposes. Add to this a phallic-headed demon that, echoing Christ’s own temptation by the devil, is goaded to sacrifice her soul for power. Yet, whereas most standard revenge narratives would have had an empowered Jeanne raising a holy terror against those who had raped and tortured her, instead Jeanne is transformed into a Gaea figure, helping the villagers with their problems and quietly stoking the flames of revolt.

What makes “Belladonna of Sadness” such an iconic film has less to do with its plot and more with its various animation techniques. Foregoing a realistic Disney-esque aesthetic, every shot in Yamamoto’s film not only calls attention to itself but also oftentimes begs for analysis. It was at first jarring to watch scenes where characters would be talking and yet not see animated faces moving their mouths in imitation of physical speech.  However, this approach, as well as panning the camera across the cell to imitate movement, calls attention to the very nature of animated cinema.  Laid bare to us, these techniques force the viewer to be reminded that they are watching a constructed work. Be it splashes of red that blanket the entire frame, collaging or the appropriation of a past master’s style, Yamamoto challenges convention by visualizing the very emotions, ideas and themes he is trying to tackle.

Of course, the picture’s longevity owes not just to the superficiality of the visuals.  Every frame is dense with meaning. After viewing the film myself I couldn’t help but try and come up with my own interpretations of the scenes. Yet, even when I thought I had a firm grasp on what they were about, some other scene from the film would force me to reevaluate my own thoughts. In effect, the film could be considered a type of Rorschach test. Whatever your mind’s eye perceives speaks more about yourself than the work you’re analyzing, making the fact that Eiichi Yamamoto never returned to this level of artistry depressing. Currently the only animator who earns the honor of following in Yamamoto’s work for “Belladonna of Sadness” would be Masaaki Yuasa, whose work straddles high and low art.

The 4K restoration of “Belladonna of Sadness” will be screened at the Japan Society in New York on July 10 at 10:30 p.m. ET.  For ticket information, go to japansociety.org.