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Review: Belladonna of Sadness

I’ve only been back in New York for a few hours, and I’m already hitting my usual haunts. How could I possibly turn in early when Sunshine Cinema was hosting a midnight screening of Belladonna of Sadness? Had I ever heard of it before purchasing the ticket? Nope. But a psychedelic anime featuring Tatsuya Nakadai as the voice of Satan sounded way too cool to pass up.

This is the sort of art house oddity I live for: an unholy union between visual poetry and unapologetic smut. Director Eiichi Yamamoto tells his sad tale predominantly through static watercolor images—which, consequently, makes the relatively rare moments of genuine animation all the more striking and sensual and violent and hypnotic. The purpose of these collages is not to literally depict the heroine’s (considerable) suffering, but rather to vividly illustrate her emotional state through splashes of red and green and black and gold, rugged lines that bend and contort into suggestively writhing shapes, and the disorienting intermingling of light and darkness. The plot—which concerns a peasant woman making a pact with a decidedly phallic devil after her supposedly pious king reveals himself to be a thoroughly corrupt hypocrite—is almost incidental to the defiantly unconventional, hallucinogenic style. I can’t honestly say I liked the film (that is to say, in the same way I enjoy petting a dog or eating ice cream), but I certainly won’t be forgetting it any time soon.

[Originally written April 22, 2017.]

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