The Film (4.5/5)
For cinephiles of a certain age, discovering truly underground movies is an increasingly rare experience. Movies like Eraserhead or El Topo that I originally saw in college on beaten-up, tenth-generation VHS bootlegs are now easily accessible in pristine high-def editions. In 2016, the arrival of a truly lost movie like Belladonna of Sadness is something of a minor miracle; the psychedelic ‘70s anime produced by Mushi Production was a box office disappointment in Japan and has never been officially released in North America before Cinelicious restored it for a theatrical run earlier this year. The restored version of Belladonna of Sadness presented on this Blu-ray feels like a genuinely rediscovered movie - a mixture of occult esoterica, proto-feminist subtext and trippy, perverse imagery, it’s the kind of movie that, if it didn’t exist, could have just as easily been one that I (or you) made up in a dream.
The third film in Mushi’s adult-oriented Animerama trilogy, Belladonna of Sadness is loosely based on 19th-century French writer Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière, a history of witchcraft (and one of the first to portray its subjects in a sympathetic light). In Michelet’s account, the sorceresses of medieval Europe were revolting against the patriarchal oppression of feudalism and Christianity. Belladonna director/co-writer Eiichi Yamamoto focuses this narrative on one woman, Jeanne (voiced by Aiko Nagayama), who has just married Jean (Katsutaka Ito) as the story begins. On their wedding night, Jeanne is ritualistically raped by a local baron (Masaya Takahashi) and his underlings; Jean insists that they try to move on, but Jeanne (quite understandably) can’t. She’s soon visited by an impish, unmistakably phallic demon (Tatsuya Nakadai) who urges her to take revenge. Jeanne resists at first, but as she grows more independent and defiant of the baron and his dictatorial rule over their village, the demon’s power over her grows.
Yamamoto and his animators choose to tell this story with a series of mostly still watercolor images; while this may have been at least partly an economic choice, it’s used to fascinating effect. The literal stillness of the film can be challenging, but if one can get on its wavelength, it becomes quite hypnotic, especially when the stillness is broken in the second half, by an extended sequence that is a blur of psychedelic, near-pornographic imagery. “Trippy” is an overused descriptor for movies with surreal imagery, but Belladonna of Sadness has the structure of an acid trip, literally peaking midway before leaving the viewer with fuzzy memories of philosophical epiphanies, cartoon orgies and lots of prog rock (courtesy of composer Masahiko Satoh).
Belladonna’s underlying feminist streak is particularly disarming in the context of a porn-y, druggy cartoon; I can’t say whether Yamamoto had Lacan in mind, but a devil as personified by a talking penis is a pretty heavy signifier. Whether Belladonna’s intentions are undercut by imagery that objectifies its heroine even as it cries outrage over her mistreatment is debatable. I would suggest that anyone who has trouble with cinematic depictions of rape to steer clear of this one, but personally, I found that the use of animation abstracts the movie’s nastier moments to the point where they’re powerful without being viscerally disturbing. Belladonna of Sadness is a product of its time in every way, but, as the hilariously out-of-left-field epilogue demonstrates, its heart is in the right place.
Belladonna of Sadness is presented by Cinelicious in the film’s original 1.32:1 aspect ratio. This transfer of the company’s 4K restoration of the movie is gorgeous; the movie’s deliberate pace allows for plenty of time to admire the detail in each of its gorgeous watercolor paintings, and the film is almost completely free of dirt, scratches or other signs of its age, while still retaining a pleasantly filmic layer of grain. The DTS-HD 1.0 mono audio track (Japanese with English subtitles) is also strong throughout, particularly in highlighting Satoh’s score.
The most notable extras are lengthy video interviews (running between 15-30 minutes each) with Yamamoto, Satoh and art director Kuni Fukai, who each go into detail about their influences, their work on Belladonna of Sadness and the film’s reception. Also included are a trio of trailers, the Japanese original and Cinelicious’s red- and green-band trailers. A 16-page booklet featuring an essay by Dennis Bartok detailing the film’s rediscovery and restoration is included with the disc.
Belladonna of Sadness is a remarkable rediscovery that lives up to the hype surrounding its restoration. While I’d suggest that people who are disturbed by sexually explicit (and, in some scenes, violent) imagery proceed with caution, otherwise, this gorgeous new Blu-ray is a must-see for fans of anime, psychedelia, Satanism and/or talking phalluses.