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Belladonna of Sadness

Wednesday, March 23 @ 9:30pm  |  Brattle Theatre

1972 | Japan | 93 minutes
Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Screenwriter: Yoshiyuki Fukuda & Eiichi Yamamoto
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Aiko Nagayama, Katsutaka Ito

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“A mad, swirling, psychedelic light-show of medieval tarot-card imagery with horned demons, haunted forests and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, equal parts J.R.R. Tolkien and gorgeous, explicit Gustav Klimt-influenced eroticism.”

1973’s Belladonna of Sadness is the third and final film in the erotic animated “Animerama Trilogy,” a forgotten masterpiece produced by the godfather of Japanese anime & manga, Osamu Tezuka and directed by Eiichi Yamamoto (Astro Boy).

Based on the book Satanism and Witchcraft by French writer Jules Michelet, ingenue Jeanne (voiced by Aiko Nagayama) is violently raped on her wedding night by the local lord. Seeking vengeance, she makes a pact with the Devil (voiced by Tatsuya Nakadai, from Akira Kurosawa’s Ran), who manifests as an erotic sprite that transforms her into a black-robed vision of madness and desire.

The transgressive depiction of rape is no less horrific here than in contemporaneous American rape revenge horror films, but boundary-pushing hallucinatory animation elevates metaphor to mindbending artform as Jeanne’s naked body is ripped in half by her ordeal. It soon becomes clear to Jeanne that the best revenge is living well. The phallus-shaped Devil first appears to her while she is spinning thread, making her smile after she has forgotten how. When the Devil’s small gifts become larger they bring suspicion from villagers and royals alike.

Fighting to escape roles deemed appropriate for someone of her class and gender, Jeanne becomes a business woman, money lender, and witch. Her biggest foe becomes not the skull-faced lord who raped her, but his wife who supports the patriarchy for her own ends.

Animated largely with scrolling still watercolor paintings that draw heavily on the work of Aubrey Beardsley, and fueled by a mindblowing Japanese psych rock soundtrack from avant-garde jazz composer Masahiko Satohthe, the film frequently switches between scenes of frantic psychedelia, serene beauty, dark horror, and the swirly erotism of an entire town engaged in a Satanic orgy. Cinelicious Pic’s immaculate 4K restoration, from the original 35mm camera negative, brings this LSD-stoked, 1970s head trip to the US for the first time with English subtitles and is not to be missed.

– Rebekah Murphy