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Belladonna of Sadness

Belladonna of Sadness(1973)

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teaser Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

"From Astroboy to Belladonna" teased the poster for Belladonna of Sadness, the allegorical and sexually daring animated 1973 feature from Japanese filmmaker Eiichi Yamamoto and producer Osamu Tezuka. That is indeed quite a leap. Tezuka was one of Japan's most popular manga creators when he formed the independent animation studio Mushi Productions and Yamamoto was one of the maverick artists who joined the renegade studio. Through Mushi, Tezuka transformed his two most beloved manga series into the hugely popular animated TV shows Astroboy and Kimba the White Lion (the first Japanese anime to be syndicated widely in the U.S.) and Yamamoto was one of Tezuka's most important collaborators on both the TV shows and on his more experimental projects.

Inspired by George Dunning's fanciful and surreal Yellow Submarine (1968), which impressed the filmmaker when it played in Tokyo, Tezuka and Yamamoto teamed up to make One Thousand and One Nights (1969), an ambitious animated feature with adult content for mature audiences, and Cleopatra (1970, renamed Cleopatra: Queen of Sex for the U.S. release). Belladonna of Sadness was the third and final film in what has been called their Animerama trilogy. Based on an episode in the 19th century French novel La Sorcire, a sympathetic history of witchcraft in the middle ages written by Jules Michelet, their story dramatized the ordeal of a beautiful young peasant woman who is raped by the town's feudal Baron, accused of witchcraft, and finally approached by the Devil himself. As production began, however, Tezuka left the studio he had created and Yamamoto took over, effectively producing as well as directing.

Yamamoto brought in Yoshiyuki Fukuda to co-write the script--"It's porn," he told Fukuda, "but make it a pure love story"--and manga artist and illustrator Kuni Fukai as the film's art director. Fukai remembers Yamamoto describing his idea for the production: "It's not animation, but I want to make something unique with no movement, and I want you to join." The result is an animated feature with little traditional animation. The camera tracks over Fukai's elaborate, abstract paintings like a classic Japanese scroll painting, with minimal animation of individual figures and brief animated sequences between the canvases. "Yamamoto had this vision of using white at the base," recalled Fukai. "When I heard that, I pictured Japanese painting. I thought of using watercolor to match Yamamoto's vision."

For the music, Yamamoto approached composer Masahiko Sato, a young musician who studied at Boston's Berklee College of Music and was an early proponent of the synthesizer in the early 1970s. Sato combines jazz and rock with classical themes and suggestions of medieval ballads for a score played on harpsicord, Hammond organ, Rhodes piano and synthesizer, which was utilized to create the eerie, multi-layered soundscape of the plague scenes. Sato's wife Chinatsu Nakayama, a singer and actress who voiced the lead in Cleopatra, narrates Belladonna and wrote the lyrics to and sings the film's theme song.

Part subversive folk tale, part rock ballad musical, and part impressionistic art film, Belladonna of Sadness is at once a feminist critique of the oppression of women and the poor by the rich and powerful and an exploration of female sexuality in a medieval culture where such expression is considered sinful at best and the work of the devil at worst. The artwork, a mix of sketchy drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings, is filled with phallic, fertility, and menstrual imagery, and the mix of abstract and pop art evokes Peter Max, art nouveau, Guido Crepax, Sesame Street animations, and psychedelic posters. Belladonna of Sadness has more in common with the animated science fiction cult film Fantastic Planet (France, 1973), the early features of American animation rebel Ralph Bakshi, and the live-action Czech new wave masterpiece Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) than the manga serials and sexually explicit anime horrors that come to mind in the intersection of Japanese animation and erotica.

It was well received at the Berlin Film Festival but a financial failure when it was released in Japan in 1973. Mushi was on the verge of bankruptcy with the exit of its founder and the film's distributor confused audiences by opening it in mainstream theaters with the tagline "From Astroboy to Belladonna," which did not prepare audiences for the erotic content, the psychedelic imagery, or the brutality of the story. Eight minutes of the most explicit imagery was edited out of the negative for a 1979 rerelease in Japan and those sequences were lost for decades until independent American film distributor Cinelicious Pics teamed up with SpectreVision to restore the film from the original 35mm negative in 2015. The missing footage was restored from a 35mm release print preserved by the Cinematek film archive in Belgium. Over 40 years after its world premiere, Belladonna of Sadness received its long-delayed American debut to largely glowing reviews. Writing for The New York Times, film critic Glenn Kenny described the film as "undoubtedly a landmark of animated film, and arguably a masterpiece. But it's a very disquieting one."

"Belladonna of Sadness: Lost and Found," Dennis Bartok. CineliciousPics, 2016.
"Beauty, Resurrected: Inside the Cinelicious Restoration of Lost Anime Classic Belladonna of Sadness," Cinelicious Restoration Team. MovieMaker, May 4, 2016.
Interview with Eiichi Yamamoto. CineliciousPics Blu-ray #4, 2016.
Interview with Kuni Fukai. CineliciousPics Blu-ray #4, 2016.
Interview with Masahiko Satoh. CineliciousPics Blu-ray #4, 2016.
"Review: 'Belladonna of Sadness,' a Bewitching Masterpiece, Glenn Kenny. The New York Times, May 5, 2016.

By Sean Axmaker

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