Inside the Greatest X-Rated Animated Film You’ve Never Heard Of
Musician and composer Masahiko Satoh’s esoteric score only adds to the weirdness; a dizzying blend of atonal avant-garde jazz, lush ballads, psychedelic rock and dirty, wah-wah-driven funk. “The imagery of the film is very abstract, so I had to think abstractly,” Satoh says. “I had two routes when thinking about how to compose music for the film: try to find a sound that expresses the truth of the characters’ internal struggles or express it through a pop aesthetic. I ended up going between those two.”
Inspired by French historian-author Jules Michelet’s 1862 feminist witchcraft novel La Sorciere, Belladonna of Sadness remains that rare anime whose sense of transgression and shock value hasn’t diminished four decades after its release. At the time, film studios like Toei – whose best known protégé Hiyao Miyazaki would become one of the medium’s most celebrated directors – were well-known for its popular, yet largely anodyne offerings. Yamamoto’s film bucked that trend — and ended up paying the price for it.
“It was simply too hardcore for most animation audiences in the early 1970s,” Dennis Bartok, Executive Vice President, Acquisitions & Distribution for Cinelicious, writes in a new essay accompanying the film’s release. “It was, tellingly, too strange even for grindhouse distributors to take a crack at. [It’s] the first truly erotic animated feature film.”
“There was colorful stuff, but nothing that really pushed the envelope,” says Mike Toole, editor-at-large for Anime News Network. “[Mushi Productions head and anime godfather] Osamu Tezuka wanted to push the limits of the medium and make something targeted for adults. The public was not ready for Belladonna when it came out. It had a reputation as, ‘This is one of the worst animes ever made.’ But in retrospect, not so much. There’s a new appreciation for it.”
Mushi had long earned acclaim for creating the lovable, ubiquitous Astro Boy series in the 1960s. But Belladonna, the third film in the studio’s trilogy that also included 1001 Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970 — its American title was Cleopatra: Queen of Sex), was virtually ignored upon its Japanese release, sparsely distributed in Europe and never made it stateside. The studio, already teetering on the edge of solvency, went bankrupt, in part, because of its release. In subsequent years, however, it would become ground zero for a generation of beloved filmmakers (Osamu Dezaki, Gisaburo Sugii) and studios (Sunrise, Madhouse).
For the film’s creators, the second life of one of anime’s most shocking movies is as surprising to them as anyone else. “I hadn’t really thought about it at all in the past 40 years,” Satoh laughs. “I’m just glad it’s gotten another chance in the limelight.”
Asked how he would describe the film to someone who’s never seen it, Belladonna artist Kuni Fukai’s answer is swift: “To not watch it with your family.”
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