Belladonna of Sadness Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
An innocent young woman, Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama) is violently raped by the local lord on her wedding night. To take revenge, she makes a pact with the Devil himself (Tatsuya Nakadai), who appears as an erotic sprite and transforms her into a black-robed vision of madness and desire. (From Cinelicious Films’ official synopsis)
In 1969, the “Godfather of Anime” and one of the format’s most innovative leaders, Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989), joined forces with long-time collaborator and director Eiichi Yamamoto to create three of the first adult-oriented Japanese animated features for Tezuka's Mushi Productions – One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (Japanese: Senya Ichiya Monogatari, 1969), Cleopatra (Japanese: Kureopatora, 1970), and Belladonna of Sadness (Japanese: Kanashimi no Belladonna, 1973). This sexually-charged, counterculture Animerama Trilogy was a far cry from the team’s previous pairings on child-friendly entertainment, which included the influential Astro Boy series and Kimba the White Lion feature film (1966).
One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is probably the most conventional of the three. Running more than two hours in length, it is a frustratingly arty mix of expressionism, traditional anime, R. Crumb cartoon vulgarity (and racist iconography), and popular Western animation styles (more DePatie-Freleng and Chuck Jones than Disney). It also sticks surprisingly close to the lore it is based on (at least as Western audiences understand it), despite its modern styles, exploitative nudity, and implied sex. Cleopatra was released in the U.S. as Cleopatra: Queen of Sex by Xanadu Productions with a self-imposed X-rating, in hopes of cashing-in on the popularity of Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1972). This purposefully silly, sometimes sci-fi, sometimes satirical, nominally pornographic, and outstandingly epic retelling of the Cleopatra legend is an absolutely singular film; not necessarily in its story content, but definitely in its purposefully anachronistic elements (example: characters use guns and Alexander’s murder is framed with the music and fashions of a No opera) and mixed-media approaches, which combined different schools of hand-drawn animation with photographed model work/special effects and real actors with cartoon heads rotoscoped onto their bodies.
The final film in the series, Belladonna of Sadness, is the rarest, having been ‘lost’ for years (see the Video section for more) and the most confrontational/unconventional of the bunch – by a substantial margin. Often discussed in the context of other conceptually audacious adult animation of the 1970s, its outré content inspires comparisons to Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated indie movies – the aforementioned Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic (both 1973), and Coonskin (1975). The audience-friendly Cleopatra definitely belongs in this category, however. The more apt correlations would be socially conscious message movies, like Fred Wolf’s The Point (1971), Rene Laloux's Fantastic Planet (1973), John Hubley’s Everybody Rides the Carousel (1975), Martin Rosen & John Hubley’s Watership Down (1978), and Bakshi's Wizards (1977). Yet, even when set against the decade’s most influential cartoon masterpieces, Belladonna of Sadness is completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Its hallucinatory, watercolour-infused Mushi ‘house style’ meets Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha imagery is searingly evocative. Cleopatra has a very cool montage of famous works of art coming to life, but Belladonna of Sadness embodies the spirit of Art Nouveau within its own method and design.
None of the Animerama Trilogy films were particularly expensive – basically no feature animation outside of Disney productions was expensive during the era. The first two entries recycle frames and use still drawings regularly, while still maintaining the basic expectations of a ‘60s/’70s Japanese production. That said, Belladonna of Sadness looks the most incomplete, due in part to its ambitious animation techniques, but more to dwindling studio profits (Tezuka left production during the early stages and Mushi filed for bankruptcy the same year the film was released). However, the prevalent use of painted still frames and panning effects was not entirely a cost-cutting measure – it is an intended part of the film’s experimental nature. Viewers weaned on Disney and modern television animation will possibly find the inert effect stifling at first, but should find themselves acclimated quickly enough, because the watercolor and ink painted stills are so dynamic. There is also plenty of actually animated elements and technically tricky ones at that. Hand-inked lines move around and throughout the random, hand-painted patterns without altering their consistency – something that is only easy today due to shortcuts that computers grant modern animators.
In addition, these films tend to simplify their messages and metaphors for the purpose of clarity. Belladonna of Sadness’ sheer fury and incredibly challenging themes really set it apart in ways that even its stunning animation cannot. Melancholy is sort of the default mood for a lot of the ‘70s adult animation, but the residue of the hippie era usually overpowered the cynicism, leading to optimistic endings. Belladonna of Sadness is, in comparison, a cruel existential horror story; one that assaults the audience with abstract representations of the emotional and physical damage caused by violent rape, followed by even more transgressive images of unchecked, sinful eroticism, and a tragic finale that is, at best, bittersweet. The overload is enough that many viewers will find it morally offensive, which is the point, I’m sure.
One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Cleopatra both deal with rape and retribution in their own way, but they are secondary themes. In those cases, much more effort is devoted to clever adaptation of traditional and oft-told stories. Both are very plot and gag-heavy productions, while Belladonna of Sadness is a more esoteric feature. The sexual assault (and other violence, for that matter), though represented in palatably abstract ways (similar to the positive sexual contact in the other two Animerama movies), is a far more demanding and centralized theme. The skeleton of Jules Michelet’s original story, La Sorcière (English version: Satanism and Witchcraft, 1863) – itself based in political history – is tonal window dressing. There are breaks for expositional breakdowns, but these are merely touchstones as the film barrels deeper and deeper into psycho-sexual hell.
Belladonna of Sadness is being sold as a ‘lost film,’ which isn’t exactly true. It’s more like parts of the movie were lost as it dwindled into obscurity. With that in mind, I will do my best to explain the lingering controversy concerning the preferred running time of a ‘full-length’ version. According to Cinelicious Pics ( the company that produced this edition for Blu-ray and theatrical screenings) the original release (which was possibly as long as 93 minutes) was shorn of approximately eight minutes for a re-release in 1979. Working from 4K scans of the only surviving ‘uncut’ 35mm camera negatives, Cinelicious was able to restore much of the censored footage and bring the running time up to 86 minutes. However, the company still admits to finding splices throughout the reels, indicating that some material was still missing. It is apparently not known specifically what is missing and, based on the film’s experimental nature, it’s basically impossible to tell. It’s not like there are any missing subplots or unanswered questions.
I am a bit surprised by the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, given that the previous two films in this loose trilogy were 2.35:1, but it is quickly apparent that Yamamoto is instituting a lot of vertical movement that takes advantage of the boxier format. The 4K scan does its job by capturing not only the hard lines and patterns, but the soft, intricate qualities of the bleeding watercolor designs. The divisions of these powerfully vivid Eastmancolor hues are neat, yet smooth and feature no notable compression effects. It’s always easy for studios to default to using a lot of DNR with animation, because animation is usually bold and graphic. In this case, digital smoothing would’ve mitigated the beautifully blotchy texture. Grain structure is consistent, fine, and appears accurate to my eyes. There are some darker moments where black levels appear slightly grey and the grain clumps up a bit, but these are exceptions. All other print damage effects are minimal.
Belladonna of Sadness’ original Japanese mono soundtrack is preserved in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The sound design is often purposefully stark to punctuate the still artwork and melodramatic tone. Effects work is minimal and is, along with the dialogue, rarely synced to the on-screen movements. All of these basic sounds are clean and only restrained by the semi-flatness of the single-channel mix. However, the music sounds pretty spectacular, though it is, again, somewhat limited by the lack of a stereo spread. The score, by jazz composer Masahiko Satô, is described as ‘psyche-rock’ in the advertising materials. There certainly are some avant-garde moments, including some prog-rocky jam sessions and acid jazz breakdowns (especially during the second half), but quite a bit of the music falls in line with the scores for live-action Japanese period pieces from the era. I mean this as a compliment, of course, because I appreciate the eclectic nature of the soundtrack. There are even some songs with narration sung by Mayumi Tachibana (lyrics by Yu Aku and Asei Kobayahsi), similar to what you’d hear in Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood movies (1973, 1974) or what Guido & Maurizio De Angelis did for Enzo G. Castellari’s pseudo-musical spaghetti western, Keoma (1976).
Interview with Eiichi Yamamoto (23:20, HD) – The director discusses his early career in manga, anime, and filmmaking, his relationship with Tezuka, finding inspiration in George Dunning and Al Brodax’ Yellow Submarine (1968), developing One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Cleopatra, dealing with the constraints of Belladonna of Sadness’ extremely stylish imagery, casting, and the film’s reception.
Interview with Kuni Fukai (16:50, HD) – The film’s art director, who enters during the end of Yamamoto’s interview to look over some of the original art, continues the conversation with a breakdown of his early career and inspirations, his relationship with Yamamoto, Pink Floyd’s apparent interest in his work (I can see a lot of Belladonna of Sadness in the animated pieces of The Wall), and some of his general design preferences.
Interview with Masahiko Satoh (27:20, HD) – The film’s composer also talks about his personal history, his musical training and influences, his early work as a film composer, and how contemporary music fit the challenges of Belladonna of Sadness. He also plays some of the themes on his piano.
Original trailer, re-release red band trailer, and re-release green band trailer
Belladonna of Sadness doesn’t disappoint. This is sex, drugs, and rock & roll anchored in sobering themes. It is a grotesque, cruel, sombre, and often breathtaking piece of Art Nouveau expression that is way too short to overstay its welcome. I'm sure many readers will want to see it while under the influence, which I'm sure is great, but it's also worth watching at least once with a clear head. Cinelicious’ restoration is gorgeous and the DTS-HD MA soundtrack is as good as we can expect from the material. The extras aren’t exactly all-inclusive, but the director, art director, and composer interviews are quite informative.
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