Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Eiichi Yamamoto's BELLADONNA OF SADNESS: Blu-ray debut of the restored and rediscovered masterpiece of erotic animation

A "must" for anyone who appreciates animation, eroticism, and/or the culture and spirit of the 1970s, BELLADONNA OF SADNESS -- a Japanese anime originally released in 1973 (but never seen theatri-cally here in the USA until 2016) and based on the French erotic novel, La Sorcière, by Jules Michelet -- is so very different from the kind of animation we get these days that it seems almost quaint. Yet within that quaintness resides a wealth of eroticism and wonder.

As directed by Eiichi Yamamoto (shown at right), with art directions by Kuni Fukai and a succulent, of-its-time-period musical score by Masahiko Sato (the time period in question is the 1970s, rather than the medieval era in which the story is set), the movie tells the tale of young lovers Jean and Jeanne (shown below in one of their happy times) who, on their wedding night are summarily separated by the Lord of their village and his nasty wife. Jeanne is repeatedly raped by that Lord and his men, while Jean is tossed out of the castle to find his way home, alone.

Already we're in the realm of class, economics, sex, rape, religion (the town priest looks on at these goings-on with utter benignity), the psychology of self-loathing, and feminism -- seen, of course, via the eyes (and the paintbrush) of the male. Naturally, the female of the species isn't simply the victim here; she's the perpetrator, too. Ah, Eve: you naughty, naughty girl!

What makes the animation so lavish and lush -- and utterly different from what we're used to these days -- is its simplicity, symbolism, use of color, and in particular, its use to white space. Take the initial rape (above): the combo of sudden violence, jagged art and dense and pounding music makes the moment something of a staggerer.

What's oddest about the animation is that is rarely moves much. And yet the colors -- whether bright and saturated, pastel (above) or intricately shaded (below) -- are quite magical to view. As we learn of the ups and down of our gorgeous couple (mostly downs, unfortunately), we also meet Jeanne's "saviour," who turns out to the devil --first appearing to our heroine in the guise of what looks suspiciously like a little penis (below), and very soon he is doing all those pleasurable things for which the penis is best known.

Before you can say, "Sell me your soul, sweetie!" Jeanne does just that, in order to exact some revenge upon her "Lord." But revenge, which constitutes the remainder of the tale, turns out to be rarely sweet, often ugly, and almost always erotic.

And true to the times -- then, now, and forever, it would seem -- it's the Lord's wife (above, center left) who is punished most (along with her page, extreme left: ah, class distinctions!), while the Lord (center, right) and his Priest get off scot-free.

Along the way Jeanne gets fucked by Satan, which becomes one hell of a light show culminating in a riot of all the colors, styles and time frames you could ask for, followed by one of the most all-out sexual orgies that animation has ever given us, as though Picasso and Bosch had joined forces but confined themselves to the use of only happy, bright, approaching-day-glo colors.

The Black Plague? Of course!  And how well it is done, decimating an entire city in seething black-and-white animation. Finally Jean and Jeanne do get it on -- in the sweetest of the segments, all pastels -- and then we quickly return to the bad times once again.

But even those bad times are hugely erotic -- notice how the smoke from a burning-at-the-stake curls around and into every orifice with such sinuous glee -- all accompanied by Masahiko's signature 70s music that will take you pleasurably back in time. The film's final shot, by the way, is a hoot and a half -- and thoroughly anti-church.

On the Blu-ray extras are some very good interviews with director, art director and composer that give us some history of each man, as well as his approach to what he felt was needed for this particular movie. Also included is the original Japanese trailer for the film, plus the current trailers, both red-band and green.  (The film is also said to include eight minutes of explicit footage, rescued from the sole surviving release print. As explicit it is may be for its time, however, don't expect much, maybe any, male full-frontal.)

After its 50-plus theatrical engagements across the country, Belladonna of Sadness -- from Cinelicious and The CineFamily -- hits the street this coming Tuesday, July 12, on both Blu-ray and VOD -- for purchase or rental. Just make sure the kids are in bed before you watch, or you will have an awful lot of questions to field....

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