Words tend to fail when trying to describe “Belladonna of Sadness,” the 1973 Japanese animated feature that’s just now getting a much-belated American release.
To say it’s psychedelic doesn’t begin to capture the watercolor washes or snaky line drawings that define its extremely era-specific visual style. To say it’s erotic doesn’t begin to capture the cornucopia of carnality it depicts, which makes, in the annals of cartoon sex, “Fritz the Cat” look like “Felix the Cat.” To say it’s problematic doesn’t begin to capture the disturbing degree to which, especially in its early scenes, the film lingers over the degradation, sexual and otherwise, of its female protagonist.
Though it’s a Japanese production, made at a studio founded by “Astro Boy” creator Osamu Tezuka, “Belladonna” takes the form of a European folk tale. A young couple, Jean and Jeanne, find their newlywed idylls destroyed when the local baron and his henchmen arrive and gang rape Jeanne on her wedding night. She recovers and becomes a skilled spinner of thread, only to be accused of sorcery and exiled from their village.
Jeanne begins having visions of a tiny, penis-shaped demon, who turns out to be Satan himself, and he grants her the powers she needs to take revenge on her abusers. These include herbology and sexual potency, i.e. witchcraft. While it’s satisfying to see these rapists and their enablers receive comeuppance, the film never stops feeling like an exploitive female revenge fantasy made by men. And the use of the freedom animation allows to depict extreme renditions of sexual assault lies somewhere on the same continuum as the outright offensiveness of later anime “classics” such as the “Urotsukidoji” series.
With a blaring acid-rock soundtrack and more Dionysian depictions of polymorphous perversity in its second half, “Belladonna” achieves the level of animated art-porn. (Although the term ‘animated’ should be taken loosely—in many scenes, the camera simply pans along a still painting.) It’s a master class in elaborate phallic and yonic imagery. But it’s not quite enough to wash away the ick from the traumatic earlier bits.
In other words, this is a movie that’s sure to blow some minds, and just as certain to turn a few stomachs.
(89 minutes, not rated, opens Friday, May 27 at the Hollywood Theatre) GRADE: C+