BY ERIC BRESLER
Even the worst acid trips have moments of rewarding beauty, though they’re often lost amidst the overarching nightmarishness of it all. The same goes for the 1973 Japanese animated masterpiece Belladonna of Sadness, screening this Friday at the International House. An unsettling fairy tale that should have a trigger warning stamped on the poster, the film concerns a newlywed couple whose happiness is shattered by an evil baron and, eventually, the devil himself. It achieves mythological heights in scope while featuring elements of classic folklore that feel alternately familiar and foreign. The imagery is beautifully psychedelic, shockingly sexual, and, at times, horrifically graphic. It’s a singular work of animation that transcends the standard “anime” label, though its creators had their feet planted firmly in that industry.
Belladonna was the final installment in Mushi Production’s Animerama trilogy, a series of adult-oriented features that were likely made as animated counterparts to the popular “pink films” of the time. Mushi was founded by the legendary Osamu Tezuka, an artist and animator who, for simplicity’s sake, you can consider the Walt Disney of Japan. Belladonna was preceded by 1969’s successful A Thousand And One Nights, the world’s first XXX animated feature, and 1970’s Cleopatra. All three films were directed by longtime Tezuka collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto (Tezuka served as co-director on the second) and they marked a radical departure for the duo whose previous collaborations were on hit family-friendly shows like Astroboy and Kimba The White Lion. Belladonna performed poorly at the box office upon its release in 1973 and Mushi filed for bankruptcy later that year (by that time, Tezuka had already left the company to form a new animation studio).
It’s honestly difficult to imagine Belladonna achieving success in any era, though it looks like its time has finally come. It remains defiantly transgressive, the brave creation of a group of visionary madmen that feels both timeless and deeply rooted in the early 1970s (jazz musician Masahiko Satoh’s original score certainly helps with that). This is the type of film that can rekindle a love for cinema amongst even the most jaded of modern cinephiles. Belladonna of Sadness has "cult classic" written all over it, and I truly hope that you join us for its modern rebirth.
Eric Bresler is a film curator and the director of programming for the arts space PhilaMOCA.