Belladonna of Sadness was probably the perfect flick to see in the “art-house” environment of Manhattan’s new Metrograph Theater. It’s sell out engagement has prompted a “hold over” of 12 additional screenings which will run from May 13-19, 2016. (Extended again thru June 2!) There are some spoilers in my review, which you might want to avoid until you see it yourself. If you do please come back and share your opinions.
Belladonna of Sadness (Kanashimi No Belladonna, The Tragedy of Belladonna)
Mushi Productions, 1973
4K Restoration, Cinelicious Pics, 2016
Directed by: Elichi Yamamoto
Produced by: Tadami Watanabe
Written by: Yoshiyuki Fukada, Elichi Yamamoto
I’ve been excited to see Cinelicious Pics’ 4K restoration of Elichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness since it was first announced over a year ago. When tickets went on sale for a short theater run here in New York City I jumped at the chance. The US and Canadian screenings (through July 2016) are meant to herald the film’s release on BluRay. There is also a “making of” companion book from Hat and Beard Press. To sweeten the experience it would be my first chance to visit the newly opened Metrograph Theater in lower Manhattan.
The Plot Quickens…
Belladonna’s plot line, which takes place in the feudal past, is a fantasy of Faustian nature. The main character, Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama,) looking to avenge her wedding night rape by the local war lord, decides to shake hands (and other extremities) with the devil. Things go south – as in to Hades – pretty quickly.
As an animation experience BoS is a panoply of styles from Western through Asian. The opening scene could be the LP cover of The Monkees’ Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, LTD come to life with its faint pastel flowers and fine lines. There’s lots of camera panning and zooming on still images, what we now call the “Ken Burns” effect. During the course of the approximately hour and a half film we are kitchen sinked with images that careen from Japanese wood cut to Peter Max and The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Austere black line work is jarringly juxtaposed with vibrant saturated color. While Gustav Klimt has been named in the press release as an artistic influence, and clearly is, there are many more touchstones evidenced here. In particular the line and character work of Aubrey Beardsley, as well as that of Jean Cocteau, play a major role in the visual aesthetic.
She Had Hair Like Jeannie Shrimpton, Back in 1965…
Though director Yamamoto is known for the Astro Boy series, the characters in BoS are rendered with a European continence, eschewing the wide-eyed Speed Racer look that had already been well established by 1973. It seems no coincidence that the main character, Jeanne, has a flowing tressed “dolly bird” look that is reminiscent of 1960’s fashion model Jean Shrimpton. Hardcore anime fans may not get this style aberration but its an interesting aside in the genre’s history. It is said to have had a direct influence on Chiho Saito’s manga series Revolutionary Girl Utena.
The film’s overt sexuality is not for the prudish or faint of heart. This is not anime for the kiddies. It lives in the land of its allegorical contemporaries like Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s Fando Y Lis and The Holy Mountain, where Freud’s cigar is never just a cigar. There are literal clouds of pornographic pixies streaming through the ether doing who knows what to each other. I was almost afraid to really focus but I’d swear there was at least one dog (Scooby is that you?) and a mollusk or two in there somewhere. These images elicited plenty of nervous “how should I react to THAT?” giggles from the audience as things got progressively more graphic. Satan begins as a rather benign, flaccid, little trickster that is eventually stroked by Jeanne’s ever growing need for vengeance and power into a monstrous orgasmic volcano.
Speak of the Devil…
Fortunately the film’s soundtrack is left in its original Japanese (with unobtrusive English subtitles) because one of the highlights of the film is Tatsuya Nakadai’s (RAN) giddy to lugubrious voicing of the Devil.
The musical soundtrack is also a joy. The Masahiko Sato score is as filled with as many influences as the films’ visuals are. It will send audio cinephiles on a blissful voyage that includes reverb laden wah guitars, melodic bass lines akin to Beach Boys and Beatles of the Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper era, and funky Hayes/Mayfield/Schifrin styled action cues. The soundtrack was re-released on vinyl LP last December by Finders Keepers Records, a label psych and soundtrack fans should know about. You can also hear it on Apple’s streaming music service or download Mp3’s on Amazon Music. Strangely missing from the 9 track OST is Mayumi Tachibana‘s title song Kanashimi No Belladonna, which was released on CineDisc in 1973 as a single. The song is dripping with Eurovision Song Contest and giallo melodrama. It’s made all the more mysterious and intriguing via Tachibana’s breathy vocals. I’ll take mine with a double espresso and happily playlist it with cues from Ennio Morricone’s Vergogna Schifosi.
The Devil You Say…
“Are you the Devil,” asks Jeanne of the wriggly spirit. “I am you.” is the reply. That spare psychological plot device seems at times the only artifice that holds the film’s spectacular images together. For all its directness, Belladonna of Sadness is less a narrative than a audio visual tone poem.
The ending, which out of nowhere tenuously equates the main character with Jeanne D’Arc/Saint Joan and the coming of the French Revolution, was a total WTF moment for the audience. It might be worth digging up Jules Michelet’s 1892 Satanism and Witchcraft for enlightenment but knowledge of this source material shouldn’t be required to understand the film. I was not the only one sent out of the theater entertained but bewildered.
While Belladonna of Sadness is not a masterpiece, it is certainly a work of art that is worth seeing, if not pondering. Sometimes flawed projects are more compelling than perfect ones. My curiosity goes deeper than the finished product. What were the creators thinking? What were their methods and what were their restraints?
While the visuals definitely warrant repeat viewings the research I’ve done to prepare this review suggests an interesting genesis yet still leaves major informational gaps. Therefore, I’m leaning toward owning the companion book, maybe even the Limited Edition package (which includes the BluRay disc and some ephemera) to get a complete picture of its production. I’ll let you know more about it when it arrives.
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