Long lost to view anywhere, Belladonna of Sadness/La Sorcière/Kanashimi no Belladonna has been visually and aurally 4k restored for its first U.S. release. Before computers, for economy Japanese cel animation did eight frames per second (f.p.s.) as against Western twelve, and so its “limited animation” appeared more jerky.
With so much anime coming from manga (woodblock “spontaneous pictures”), the TV and big-screen results view almost as a series of storyboards, comic book frames or tableaux vivants. BS, too, is similarly reminiscent of its country’s nihon buyo, classical dance emphasizing static moments of rest. Co-produced by “Walt Disney of Japan” Osamu Tezuka and handed to his habitual collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto for co-scripting and direction, this conclusion to the adult-themed “Animerama” trilogy is now not so sexually “extremely transgressive” as in 1973 (though still thus advertised). Those to whom it is indebted are in vogue today: Millais, Rossetti, Beardsley, Schiele, Klimt, Munch, the Tarot, Freud, and the pink elephants of Dumbo, insane images from Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent and Forbidden Mountain. In another context, Haruki Murakami wrote that “the colors of the real world drain away . . . [as] if Walt Disney did an animated version of a Munch painting.”
Barely nudging into pinku-eiga or pink softcare territory and anchored even more firmly in male fantasies of female sexuality with the restoration (from archives in Belgium) of eight originally censored minutes, the colorful psychedelic swirl is in large part photographed stills whose “movement” is that of the camera. Artist Kuni Fukai labored more than a year on the thousand-plus color wash and line images.
With enhancement from adventurous but subtle jazz by Masahiko Satoh, the experience is visually and aurally memorable. Narrated in places (Chinatsu Nakayama) or accompanied by not always all that relevant song lyrics, the story however goes into too much for its eighty-six minutes. The whole ultimately derived from an allegedly non-fiction nineteenth century source, Jules Michelet’s feminist Satanism and Witchcraft/La Sorcière, the ending is sudden, unexpected and absurd, a condemnation of Church and State which then morphs its heroine into Joan of Arc and Delacroix’ revolutionary Liberty (Leading the People).
With heavy emphasis throughout on Jeanne’s (voice of Aiko Nagayama) luxurious art deco hair and on phallic imagery, the tale begins with virgin love in medieval France, that between pure peasants Jeanne and Jean (Katsutaka Ito). Their unpayable marriage tax is waived but replaced by skull-headed Milord’s (Masaya Takahashi) exercising the doit de seigneur to deflower the bride first. Inconsolable to the point of madness after metaphorical imagery of the act, she envisions a finger-size phallic figure (Tatsuya Nakadai) that claims to be the real her and encourages revenge. The newlyweds’ fortunes rise and fall through oppressive taxation of villagers, the husband’s losing his hand to royal rage and turning to drink, a far distant war and the Black Death ravaging the countryside.
Under the influence of the every-moment-larger spirit figure, Jeanne sells her thread to become wealthy and then a green moneylender who ascends to power second to none, only to arouse the enmity of Milady (Shigaku Shimegi). His size proportionate to his engorged desire, the imp grows enormous and reveals himself as black and sometimes red Satan, who consummates with her in return for granting witchly powers and sexual liberation/abandon. Ambiguous, at once bloody and innocent, sensual and pastoral, she nevertheless grows saintly in the eyes of downtrodden commoners who flock to see the condemnation by State and Church, the auto-da-fé of “that farmer bitch.”
Flash forward from that scene, surely in Rouen, to 1789 and victorious women pulling tumbrels. It turns out that, after all, Jeanne’s bright belladonna (“beautiful lady”) flower oozes poison nectar that dethrones the First and Second Estates as flames snake up her crucified thighs to deflower her again.
(Released by Cinelicious Pics; not rated by MPAA.)