Belladonna of Sadness

| July 12, 2016

It seems like the last few years have seen quite a boom in the discovery, restoration, and re-release of films that have fallen through the cracks of cinema history. Companies like Vinegar Syndrome, Drafthouse Films, Grindhouse Releasing, Garagehouse, and Distribpix have been introducing new audiences to films previously thought lost or only ever issued in subpar home video releases. While much of those companies’ work has been focused on American releases, other companies such as Arrow have been digging into the vaults of studios outside the States as well. One of the most exciting of these recent discoveries is Eiichi Yamamoto’s psychedelic animated feature Belladonna of Sadness. Before now the film was almost exclusively available from nth-generation bootlegs. The new Blu-ray from Cinelicious Pics is mandatory viewing and belongs in the library of any serious cinephile.

Jeanne is a beautiful, pure young woman who lives in a rural village in what appears to be medieval Europe. The Lord of her village is determined to possess the girl, and when he discovers she is to be married, he demands her fiancĂ© Jean pay an exorbitant marriage tax. The couple are just poor peasants, unable to pay, and the Lord suggests an alternate payment: he will waive the marriage tax if he can have Jeanne on her wedding night. This violent assault awakens something in Jeanne, what at first seems to be a mischievous phallic sprite but soon is revealed to be Satan himself. Jeanne tries to resist him and persevere in the face of constant miseries inflicted by the men in power over the land and its people. But as the injustices pile up and Jean becomes increasingly distraught and distant, Jeanne and Satan engage in a battle of wills in which Satan offers her revenge for the seemingly endless wrongs done to her in exchange for her soul. And whether she realizes it or not, the consequences of Jeanne’s decision will echo through the centuries.

Cinelicious Pics has given Belladonna of Sadness a fantastic Blu-ray release, the centerpiece of which is the new 4K transfer from the original 35mm camera negative. For a film that was only ever previously available to cinephiles outside of Japan as a muddy VHS rip, this transfer is nothing short of revelatory. It’s truly breathtaking. Much of the film is presented as long horizontal or vertical tableaus across which the camera pans, and this new restoration allows the viewer to see every pencil line, brush stroke, and burst of color exactly as it was drawn in astonishing detail. It also gives viewers a clean audio track, which is arguably just as impressive as the film’s intense visuals. The score to the film was composed by Masahiko Satoh, and it perfectly accompanies the eye-searing visuals with beautiful and frenetic psychedelia. This is a film that was designed to be seen on as big a screen as possible and listened to as loudly as possible for maximum effect. Cinelicious deserves extra commendation for giving the film a limited theatrical release in the States this year leading up to the Blu-ray, giving modern audiences a chance to see the film on the big screen for the first time.

Cinelicious Pics released Belladonna of Sadness on Blu-ray on 12 July 2016. Special features include eight minutes of footage cut from the original negative, new video interviews with Eiichi Yamamoto, art director Kuni Fukai, and composer Masahiko Satoh, the film’s original theatrical trailer and U.S. theatrical trailer. The package also includes a beautiful 16-page booklet with a new essay by Dennis Bartok.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium:
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