Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman’s Porn

The Holy Grail for Japanimation fans, 1973’s BELLADONNA OF SADNESS was one of the most-anticipated U.S. releases for its legions of buffs last year.  Now, collectors can throw out those murky VHS bootlegs and rejoice with libidinous glee at the spectacular new 4K restored Blu-ray from Cineliciouspics/Cinefamily/Spectrevision.

The final and most famous (or infamous, if you shop at Hobby Lobby) part of a trilogy by renowned director Eiichi Yamamoto, in collaboration with his oft-producer/animator Osamu Tezuka (their long association goes back to the iconic 1960s kiddie fare Astroboy and Kimba the White Lion).  BELLADONNA is a graphic feature-length adaptation of the brown-wrapper 1862 novel La Sorciere by 19th-century French author Jules Michelet (scripted by Yamamoto and Yoshiyuki Fukuda).  It’s a raw, rough, rapacious journey of a determined heroine who literally goes through hell and triumphs…sort of.  It defines the power and plight of women, and, understandably, many cine-feminists claim it as a major 1970s work.

Okay, so what’s the plot?  Medieval peasant couple Jeanne and Jean (Katsuyuki Ito, Aiko Nagayama) seek their Lord’s permission to marry (the old Fornication Under the Command of the King wheeze).  Lasciviously eyeing the fetching Jeanne, the nasty ruler (Masaya Takahashi) demands an exorbitant cow tax before the ceremony can be consummated.  Jean is financially strapped, so the Lord decrees, with delirious approval from the equally repulsive Lord’s mistress (Shigako Shimegi), that for wasting his time, the degenerate royal must enforce his right for him and his royal minions to gang rape the crap out of Jeanne.

Jeanne’s vagina responds with torrents of blood not seen since The Shining trailer, and she is tossed out with the rest of the trash.  Scumbag Jean, now leery of damaged goods, deserts his fiancée, and wanders aimlessly like the a-hole he is.  Jeanne, too, wanders…and wonders.  And swears vengeance.  Jean accepts a tax-collector position at the palace, pushing another kind of rape – the monetary bleeding of his own people.  Jeanne, taken to romping naked throughout the desolate countryside, is visited by a meek penis-shaped entity who is obsessed with her breasts.  She has vicious nightmares and reveals her fantasy of wreaking havoc upon the community.  The entity elicits a verbal bond (“What do you want?”  “Anything…so long as it’s bad!”), grows in size, and voice, and soon, Jeanne, embracing sorcery (“…touching me, exciting me into…hell…”), has become the mistress of the black arts…and a very wealthy one (as a money-lender), too (threatening all who defy her).

Jean, now a hopeless drunk who has squeezed the last penny out of the villagers, is chastised by the Lord for not living up to the proverb about blood from a stone, and by “chastised,” we mean having one of his collecting hands chopped off.

Jeanne spreads an epidemic across the kingdom because, let’s face it, what’s the Middle Ages without a plague?  Called upon to remedy the situation, she replaces the one disease with another – eternal horniness.  Soon the entire land is coupling with one another:  men with women, men with men, women with women…many of them with farm animals…the likes of which haven’t been seen since my college days at NYU.  Of course, this can’t end well, and, big surprise – the now almighty entity reveals his true self as Satan.  “Whatever,” says Jeanne.  Satan wants Jeanne for his eternal love slave, and tells her of his great plan for her.  Jeanne, now SO powerful that she makes the Devil needy, has other plans, chiefly involving the Lord and the Lord’s Mistress.  In her last stand, the woman takes the corrupt government down prick by prick.

And the townspeople being…well, people, respond like all humans afraid of what they can’t fathom (to say nothing of women, in general):  they burn her at the stake (oh, the fate of those French “Jeannes”).

As one might glean, BELLADONNA isn’t your normal family animated movie-night pick (unless your family includes Uncle Caligula).  As mentioned above, the movie never played America until 2015, taunting those aware of its existence with tantalizing stills.

I will say that it certainly isn’t for everyone, and encompasses an audience that, ironically, comprises a critical threesome.  You’ll either love it, hate it or be car-wreck fascinated by it.  The picture raises many questions, primarily, cinematically speaking, is it a gum or a candy?  Many (likely those who never saw it) pegged it as anime.  It really isn’t, as it’s not truly animated.  Yes, there are some full-animated sequences (including a weird psychedelic montage depicting women treated as trash through the ages), but BELLADONNA mostly tells its debauched tale via paintings, tapestries and drawings (all well-executed, some striking and explicit).  The imagery is often mallet-to-the-head unsubtle (schools of fish pouring out of a vagina).  Is it porn?  Is it feminism? I have friends in both camps who emphatically say “Yes.”

Okay, so where do I stand?  Earlier, I divided the viewer base into thirds.  I am firmly entrenched in the last triad, but with an asterisk leaning toward the positive first.  Why?  Simple.  Because of the “acting.”  The vocal accomplishments of all involved are exemplary, but one towers above the rest (and, thus, influences my vote immensely).  The actor voicing the role of Satan (from mild-mannered entity to evil deity of the underworld to randy would-be lover – indeed, putting the “horny” on horns) is none other than the great Tatsuya Nakadai, in my opinion, our finest living actor.  He approaches the material like he would one of his mighty Kurosawa roles – and he’s magnificent (if I understood Japanese, I would close my eyes and listen to the soundtrack as I would a radio play).

The Cineliciouspics Blu-Ray is terrific, with crystal-clear visuals and strong, buoyant audio.  The English subtitles are excellently translated, mercifully legible and eminently quotable.  No foolin’, Cineliciouspics has really gone the distance to give collectors what they want.  In addition to the fine transfer, they have uncovered and restored eight minutes cut from the original Japanese 35MM negative.  There are also newly filmed interviews with director Yamamoto, art director Kenji Fukai and composer Masahiko Sotoh, plus the recent American and 1973 Japanese trailers.  And for a hands-on delight, there’s a 16-page, full-color illustrated booklet with an essay by Dennis Bartok.

I’m glad to have finally been able to see BELLADONNA OF SADNESS – if, for no other reason, to enjoy Nakadai’s work.  I do have to admit that I’m a bit perplexed by the slew of on online bloggers who condemned the picture’s storyline as being boring.  Pray I never have to party with them.

BELLADONNA OF SADNESS.  Color.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Japanese w/English subtitles).  Cineliciouspics.  CAT/ISBN # 83390-00118.  SRP:  $39.99

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