(Eichi Yamamoto, Japan, 1973)
East End Film Festival brought a slice of the surreal to their 2014 edition with a screening of an explicit and disturbing, yet also hauntingly beautiful animation cult classic. Eichi Yamamoto’s 1973 film Belladonna of Sadness tells the fable-like story of a young and beautiful peasant woman who makes a pact with the devil in exchange for magical powers, suffering unspeakable torment at the hands of demons, spirits and ordinary men throughout. If seen without English subtitles (as was the case here at EEFF)) Eichi’s film could well be a struggle plot wise for those without any background knowledge. It is also extremely explicit, featuring numerous rapes and torments of the mind and body inflicted on the titular character; who’s fate is somewhat reminiscent of Joan of Arc - if the film’s end coda is to be correctly understood.
Yet it also showcases some eye-catching psychedelic visuals, both through the animation style, the editing, colours and framing. The aesthetic, despite the Japanese production, is not particularly reminiscent of that nation’s anime output which is in vogue today, such as the works of Studio Ghibli. Instead it seems to boast flavours of Dahli and maybe Gustav Klimt too, amongst others. The film’s flow is initially quite jarring in that many scenes feature only still paintings rather than cel animation motion. This gives the impression the camera has simply been moved around the still canvas.
Belladonna as an animated figure is ethereally beautiful to behold (the animators deck her out with lush coils of hair that shifts colours), yet often she appears half-drawn, parts of her anatomy fading out as if the animators daydreamed and forgot to finish. The colour pallet veers from smudgy pastel watercolours to vivid explosions of blood red, with large parts of the frame often left blank white. Some of the more impressive sequences feature more overtly supernatural occurrences, such as when a smoke-like demon coils its way around Belladonna, the animators somehow create the impression that the air is rippling around the edges of this demon as if he is omitting a great shimmering wave of heat.
Despite the bafflement caused by the lack of exposition, the accompanying live score from Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs added much zest to the basement atmosphere of the Red Gallery, where the screening was held. Their glam rock/psychedelic sound, which crashed over the audience in waves during some of the film’s more extreme and explicit moments, made for quite an assault on the senses when combined with the surreal visual medley on screen.