director Eiichi Yamamoto
I first heard of Belladonna of Sadness from Scumbalina at Atomic Caravan. I’ve been following Scumbalina and Atomic Caravan for about four years now, turned onto Jean Rollin, Aleksandr Rou, and now Eiichi Yamamoto. I don’t know how hard it would have been to find Belladonna of Sadness, but its recent restoration and release have happened and a random reading of the New York Times told me something else: it’s streaming on Amazon Prime!
The film draws comparisons to George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine, which I assume is because there really isn’t anything else out there like it. And the 1968 animated Beatles’ vehicle is both psychedelic and unlike most anything else itself. I actually think it has more in common with René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (also 1973) than anything else I can think of. Maybe some other Eastern European films of the time.
That said, it’s also very, very Japanese.
Inspired by La Sorcière, a French book about Satanism and Witchcraft from 1862, Belladonna of Sadness takes concepts of European descent and filters them through a psychedelic lens, imbued with elements of Japanese folkloric tradition, plus lots of sex and violence.
Produced initially by Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and generally referred to as “the Walt Disney of Japan”, this is pretty far-out and sexy stuff. This was the third production that Tezuka and director Eiichi Yamamoto collaborated on, following One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970), though Tezuka left Belladonna early in its production.
The style is utterly different from anything else I can think of in feature-length animation. Yamamoto uses long pans across complex, elaborate drawings oftentimes, using a single image to tell the story. At other times, the highly stylized imagery comes to life, in gorgeous lines like ink and watercolor and in figures that recall Gustav Klimt or Aubrey Beardsley for many (the latter certainly for me).
The story and images are violent and sexual, with a phallic devil, a woman ripped between her legs, endless vaginas and penises, in what is attempting to be a proto-sex-positive feminism perhaps, though heavily muted by its violent imagery and convoluted path to female empowerment. The film’s final image, confusingly straight out of left field, is a close-up on Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”, possibly suggestive of something hopeful and empowering?
People have cited the film for its slow pace and possibly drawn out length (even though it is short). Also whether it is a successful attempt at a positive feminist message, a failed one, or one at all. And I cannot say, certainly not on one viewing.
But what it is and why it is so striking is something so radically unusual, with visual designs so gorgeous and unique, I can’t help but find it a remarkable and impressive film, something strange and tremendous and fresh.