Last night, the invaluable International House of Philadelphia presented a work of cinema so anomalous, so inventive, so transgressive yet so beautiful that I cannot shake the imagery from my mind. The film was Eiichi Yamamoto’s animated feature Belladonna of Saddness, and you’ve probably never heard of it. Presented with a wealth of context by Cinedelphia founder Eric Bresler to a packed house (most of whom didn’t know quite what to expect), the experience was as joyful as it was disturbing. With its new immaculate restoration (in and of itself an unlikely event), Belladonna of Sadness has the makings of a cult Midnight Movie phenomenon, given the recent precedent set by Obayashi’s Hausu (1977).
Belladonna is an unforgettable piece of rapacious repertory madness. Made in 1973, the third in an adult-themed film series called Animerama (animation+cinerama+drama) conceived by renown Astroboy creator Osamu Tezuka (who incidentally left production of this film early in the process due to frustrations over creative control), Belladonna found its inspiration in a French work of non-fiction called Satanism and Witchcraft. This European source material is evident in the character designs and feudal Christian themes. It follows the story of peasant Jeanne (Katsutaka Ito), who is raped on her wedding night in a Prima Nocta free-for-all because she and her husband Jean cannot pay the requisite tax to their lord. Returning to her husband, soul-crying in bloodied tatters, she is thereafter haunted by a phallic specter that leads her to a date with the devil (the unmistakable voice of Tatsuya Nakadai), accusations of witchcraft, and a whole host of “its going to get worse before it gets worse” consequences in her bid for some shred of power. In this, Eiich Yamamoto makes strange and wondrous bedfellows of Faust, Joan Of Arc and electric guitar.
Belladonna is both elegant and crude in its methods, making liberal use of static imagery (rendered in pencil, watercolor and ink) that is panned across, with interspersed sequences of cell animation, and the dialogue overdubbed throughout. This interplay of methods is largely the result of budgetary constraints, but the result is often arresting. These methods of creative economy become staples of Japanese animation practice. Belladonna’s brooding medieval setting is wildly infused with psycho-sexual psychadelic imagery, amplified by Masahiko Sato’s psych-rock score and startling violence throughout. There is something compelling and creative in every sequence and it is a high mark of Philly cinema-going this year.
What I loved as much or more than the film itself, was the diversity of the nearly sold out audience and the collective feelings of curiosity/anticipation (before), surprise (during), and excitement (after) that were expressed. It was reassuring to me that a film from 1973, made mostly of still images, can still blow minds.
Belladonna has been treated to a 4K restoration by Cinelicious Pics, with a hopeful 2016 DVD release.