Film Review: Belladonna of Sadness

Restored version of an obscure 1973 Japanese animated feature is a visual and aural masterpiece of erotic longing, romantic love, a playful Devil and the machinations of medieval church and state.
Specialty Releases

Yes, the episodic and meandering story with unresolved plot threads isn't ideal. Yet the newly restored, 1973 Japanese animated feature Belladonna of Sadness (Kanashimi no Belladonna) is a work of such sumptuousness, of such sheer and utter beauty, that it deserves a place alongside Fantasia (1940), Yellow Submarine (1968) and the best of Oskar Fischinger's shorts in the pantheon of animation's most visually spectacular works.

Long an obscure artifact, and lost in the sense of no home-video release and virtually no theatrical release, it is the last of the Animerama Trilogy of adult-oriented features produced by animation legend Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions, following 1969's One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (Senya Ichiya Monogatari) and 1970's Cleopatra (Kureopatora), released in the U.S. as Cleopatra: Queen of Sex—all purportedly X-rated, although the MPAA's Classification & Rating Administration has no such record of that. Based on Jules Michelet's La Sorcière, an 1862 French book about witchcraft, Belladonna of Sadness is a mesmerizing tapestry inspired by the likes of Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Hieronymus Bosch, Pamela Colman Smith's Rider tarot deck, and, in one stylistically discordant segment, Peter Max. The hand-drawn animation is often limited, with the camera panning and zooming in a Ken Burns effect across delicately watercolored line art, impressionistic, charcoal-like drawings and pure psychedelia. Yet even without this re-release's 4K digital restoration, the choices of color and design would still be stunning. And its music, from an opening song that could be a James Bond theme, to a score by avant-garde jazz composer Masahiko Satoh that ranges from solo piano to subtly discordant horns, matches the visual beauty note for note.

Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto, who co-wrote the script with Yoshiyuki Fukuda, the well-titled Belladonna of Sadness centers on a medieval maiden, Jeanne (voice of Aiko Nagayama), and her ill-fated marriage to handsome peasant Jean. A big-lashed, 1970s-style ingénue, the beautiful Jeanne is deflowered on her wedding night by the evil king and his court because the couple cannot pay a deliberately high "marriage tax." Afterward, Jeanne and her husband resign themselves to a farm life of exhausting work, and one night the kindhearted but frustrated Jeanne inadvertently summons up a tiny, penis-like creature with pointed ears who, when Jeanne asks if he is the Devil, replies cryptically, "I am you." (The opening credits are less coy: "Devil (voice): Tatsuya Nakadai") The creature teases her erotically and makes her laugh, yet the steadfast Jeanne begs her to save her husband, whose backbreaking work is slowly killing him.

Through the creature's intervention, Jeanne becomes successful selling woven goods in her village. Her husband becomes the town tax collector, and the townsfolk believe Jeanne is possessed by the Devil—who metamorphoses throughout the story, appearing next as basically a two-foot-tall penis with hands and a face, and the next time as a man-sized smoke monster. As the plot wends along its labyrinthine way, Jeanne becomes a moneylender, and somehow through that wins the townsfolk's hearts. But the jealous queen colludes with a priest to have Jeanne captured, forcing Jeanne to flee to a snowy wilderness where, traumatized, emotionally battered and betrayed, she succumbs to her "wicked heart."

In ensuing sequences, the Black Death strikes the village, with images of gape-mouthed blobs of horror. Jeanne, now a self-proclaimed witch, cures a man who was left for dead. The surviving villagers party all night with her in a long, abstract orgy sequence—the film has tons of sexual imagery, though no explicit sex—yet ultimately the combined power of church and state conspire devastatingly against her.

Because of the film's obscurity, its running time has been uncertain and reported at anywhere from 86 to 93 minutes. This 86-minute version is the actual original length, distributor Cinelicious Pics told Film Journal International: "The film was cut down by approximately eight minutes for an unsuccessful re-release in Japan in 1979 (with the addition of the brief ending shot of Eugene Delacroix's painting Liberty Leading the People, which wasn’t in the original version—Cinelicious left it in this restored version). Cinelicious restored the censored footage from the sole surviving 35mm release print of the full-length version at the Cinematek in Belgium, which very graciously agreed to do a 4K scan of the missing sections from their print."

The cuts were not discrete sequences but spread throughout the movie; when Cinelicious received the cans containing the original 35mm camera negative, the distributor "could immediately see tape splices throughout all of the reels, indicating material that had been cut out and discarded. Some of the material was more explicit sexual content, but other footage was cut just to make the film shorter."

Belladonna of Sadness—a version of which played at least once in the U.S., as a January 2009 midnight show at Los Angeles' Silent Movie Theatre—is a justly restored animated masterpiece. Don't take the kiddies.

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