'Belladonna of Sadness': Film Review

Courtesy of Cinelicious Pics
A trippy, shockingly sexual novelty of Japanese animation.

Osamu Tezuka collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto's 1973 tale of witchcraft gets a loving restoration.

The artwork is achingly delicate, but there's nothing subtle about Belladonna of Sadness, a blast of psychedelic madness full of rape, tyranny and Satanism. Eiichi Yamamoto's 1973 adult-animation picture, never released on these shores, has been given a gorgeous digital restoration by Cinelicious Pics, one transformational enough that animation buffs who've endured bootlegs over the years may feel they're seeing it for the first time. While that contingent will be delighted by the pic's niche theatrical run, many others will be nonplussed by the graphic sexuality and violence of a work that makes Fritz the Cat look, well, cartoonish.

Yamamoto, a collaborator with manga legend Osamu Tezuka on Astro Boy and other child-targeted projects, directed a trilogy of animated features aimed at adult auds; this is the last. Working with artist Kuni Fukai, who hand-painted all the keyframes, he offers a feature that often eschews actual animation in favor of accompanying still images with sound and music. Recalling the storytelling techniques of the ancient Japanese picture-scrolls that preceded manga, the camera often pans past large static paintings or zooms into them; sometimes a small animated element is added to an otherwise motionless tableau.

Folky songs do much of the storytelling here, introducing two young peasants in a medieval kingdom, Jean and Jeanne, who are blissfully in love until they go to the castle to be married. Their grotesque king demands 10 cows as tax for the wedding, sends Jean home and lets his whole court rape Jeanne, the first of many forcible sexual encounters we'll see here.

Desperate to make things better once she returns to her now-disgusted husband, Jeanne has her first encounter with a ready-to-bargain Satan. Not your grandparents' horns-and-pitchfork character, this Beelzebub starts off as a tiny sprite; and if viewers think he looks a little phallic, his behavior — "I can become big!," he boasts as he slips back and forth through Jeanne's hands — confirms their suspicions.

The picture's sexual imagery begins with suggestive abstractions that would make Georgia O'Keeffe blush, and grow more explicit as Jeanne's ties to dark forces intensifies. She trades satanic sexual favors for riches and power, eventually becoming a witch who hosts orgies in the woods and helps commoners survive a plague. Though her magic initially helps the king fund a war, her increasing power will eventually make her his rival.

The bare-bones story is hardly the point here, as viewers take in the sometimes lavish, increasingly bizarre visuals and groove to a soundtrack alternating between fantasyland folk and heavy psychedelic rock. One suspects many moviegoers who stick with the film will do so just to see how weird its sexuality can get. They'll be rewarded at one point with a daisy chain of copulation that involves not just a Kama Sutra-worthy variety of human positions but giant mollusks as well.

As strange as all this is, few viewers will be prepared for the film's closing scenes, which bizarrely tie this fable into real-world history. Who knew Bastille Day was really a celebration of witchcraft?

Distributors: Cinelicious Pics, SpectreVision, Cinefamily
Production company: Mushi Production
Cast: Aiko Nagayama, Takao Ito, Tatsuya Nakadai
Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Screenwriters: Yoshiyuki Fukuda, Eiichi Yamamoto
Producer: Tadayoshi Watanabe
Director of photography: Shigeru Yamazaki
Composer: Masahiko Satoh

In Japanese

Not rated, 87 minutes