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Belladonna of Sadness
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by Jay Seaver

"Witchcraft, well-crafted."
4 stars

There wasn't much of a market for Japanese animation in the United States when Eiichi Yamamoto's "Belladonna of Sadness" was released in 1973, let alone films with the sort of limited animation and adult content that Yamamoto and producer Osamu Tezuka (often justifiably described as Japan's Walt Disney) were making in that period. As a result, it would take over forty years and a restoration for this film to get a theatrical and home video release in America, and while it's probably not worth that long a wait, it is worth discovering, especially for fans of art-house animation.

Yamamoto and co-writer Yoshiyuki Fukuda base their film on a nineteenth-century history of witchcraft by French historian Jules Michelet which contains several hypothetical short stories, which may explain why the story is so choppy - they are either trying to stretch something originally just a few pages long into ninety minutes or taking parts from several and making a single narrative out of them. So the film winds up having a reasonable enough frame, as poor farmer Jean (voice of Katsutaka Ito) and local beauty Jeanne (voice of Aiko Nagayama) marry, only for the local Lord (voice of Masaya Takahashi) find Jean's tribute offerings insufficient, leading to a prima nocte gang-rape that hangs like a cloud over the pair's intimacy, eventually leading to a deal with the Devil (voice of Tatsuya Nakadai).

In the middle of all this is a story of the young couple rising and falling separately (both become the town's tax collector at different points), the Lord committing to a costly war, and his mistress (voice of Shigako Shimegi) trying to strike at Jeanne out of jealousy. Knowing that Michelet's La Sorcière was more history than novel explains this somewhat - Jeanne's tribulations become a list of the pressures that medieval women had to deal with, which is interesting for scholarship, but not nearly as interesting an individual story as Jeanne finding herself punished and distrusted for being attractive, even by those who love her, and having to weaponize it to survive. That would not be original, perhaps, but it resonates in any place and time.

On the other hand, grounding the story in something familiar would deprive the film of one of the reasons why this sort of thing is produced as an animated film - things can get weird. It is not giving away very much to say that, although the animation is at times limited, the picture starts to distort during the sex with Satan, before getting extremely trippy - and even further into the realm of "not for kids at all" afterward. Yamamoto pushes the envelope plenty, although even as things get more eyebrow-raising, they seldom seem completely random.

Those scenes are some of the most overtly animated, with characters on-screen moving and changing position more than the rest of the film, where figures are reasonably static. It's still a film that visually demands one's attention - the coloring is beautiful watercolors rather than the solid flats that were more typical in animated films during this era, and the linework is just as lush and sensual. Yamamoto is also very creative in his use of that line right from the beginning, as a long pan follows the horizon and the deviations from it become more detailed. Even when the animation is minimal, there's a sense of motion and change, especially when married to a nifty soundtrack.

"Belladonna of Sadness" loses track of what its goals are too often to truly be a hidden classic as opposed to something appealing to fairly specialized audiences. It's at least nice to have it available for the first time, in a very nice restoration to boot.

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originally posted: 05/23/16 13:13:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2016 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 12-Jul-2016


  DVD: 12-Jul-2016

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