Animation has long been the cinematic medium most conducive to psychedelic experimentation; once film was divorced from reality and the people who made it could do anything, many chose to do everything. In the grandly trippy tradition of such fine films as Yellow Submarine, Fritz The Cat, and The Fantastic Planet comes Belladonna of Sadness, a storied 1973 cult object in its native Japan only now making its debut in American theaters. After a scandalizing run in Asian cinemas that caused quite a stir due to both the film’s lightly sacrilegious treatment of Joan of Arc and a smorgasbord of graphically erotic imagery, Eiichi Yamamoto’s film faded from memory and was presumed lost to many. The presiding studio, Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Productions, collapsed shortly after the film was released in Japan and never got the chance to export it to American theaters. But thanks to the real-life wizards at Cinelicious (seriously, their gorgeous restoration of the original camera-negative constitutes a low-level feat of magic) this heady swirl of Klimt-influenced watercolor, sexual anxieties, and nightmare Tarot illustrations has risen from the dead. There’s cause to rejoice: movies are weird again.
The word “weird,” however, is a little tricky in this context. Because it’s true that Belladonna Of Sadness is a blissfully, rollickingly strange film. Parts of it are merely unorthodox, such as the film’s liberally employed animation technique of panning over static images as opposed to creating movement. And when the film truly gets going, it’s nearly indescribable. The most exhilarating bits come when the narrative takes a brief respite from reality altogether and rockets into a freeform fantasia of sound and image. Some shots cycle through Expressionist kaleidoscopes of vivid color, bypassing communication entirely and tapping directly into the part of the brain designed to gape at pretty lights. The most memorable images tear into the liminal space between the concrete image and pure hallucination, resulting in singular wonders: proto-graffiti resembling both male and female genitalia, volcanoes shooting pastel-grunge rainbows, a demon the shape and size of a severed phallus. In one breathtaking moment, a red slit appears between a feminine figure’s legs until it grows to cleave her whole body, as if the frame itself is tearing her in half.
That masterstroke would be incomplete without the electrifying avant-jazz stylings of composer Masahiko Satoh, who scored the entire film. The “Oh, Belladonna” theme (sung by his wife, Chinatsu Nakayama) is a slice of pure ’70s pop decadence, but his aural acid freakouts that soundtrack the freakier sequences sound like Miles Davis burrowing a little further into the experimental rabbit hole of Bitches Brew. A pianist by trade, Satoh stretches the electric guitar to the furthest limits of what it can do, rendering it alien and unrecognizable when it suits his gleefully off-the-wall purposes.
But this isn’t all just weird for the sake of weird. Between the barrages of psychedelia, the film has a plot and characters and actual ideas, many of them concerning the contentious relationship between society and the female body. The figure referred to in the title is Jeanne, a feudal French lass living happily with Jean. When their local lord exercises his right to rape her the night of her wedding, it takes a serious toll on her mind and sets her on the path toward total personal dissipation. Her next tormentor is Satan himself, preying on her vulnerable state to lure her into a full-on demonic possession. Yamamoto makes his stance on the material clear, as Jeanne’s rebellious ways spread to the townspeople and spur them to throw off the lord’s shackles, eventually vaunting her to the position of power.
Even so, primitive feminist statements rarely come this steeped in male perversion. Belladonna Of Sadness surely won’t undo any Western perceptions of anime as the province of the disturbed and perverted, but there’s a subversively progressive statement buried deep under the cavalcade of cartoon boobs.
The second coming of this foreign curio is a special treat not just for the hardcore cinephiles who didn’t dare to pray that it’d ever return, but for anyone feeling a little nostalgic for a wilder era of filmmaking. Belladonna Of Sadness is very much of a piece with the ’60s and ’70s, when X-rated films could win Oscars and challenging imports played to open-minded crowds at neighborhood theaters. Watching it feels like peering through a hidden window into a chapter of cinematic history once feared too obscure to access. Yamamoto’s magnum opus may have gotten here four decades behind schedule, but the wait was more than worth it.