Director Eiichi Yamamoto’s psychedelic masterpiece Belladonna of Sadness had a pretty tough go of it. The 1973 animated film follows Jeanne, a woman who’s all innocence until she’s raped by a powerful baron on her wedding night. What ensues is Jeanne’s tripped-out journey through feudalistic violence, revenge and witch hunts, and an ultimate arrival at the ecstasy of sexual power and rebellion. Unfortunately, this transgressive, Medievalist circus of pleasures bankrupted its studio, Mushi, and rarely saw the light of day.
As the last of the Animerama trilogy, the film was the only one not also written and directed by Osamu Tekuza, which might account for its darker turns. Belladonna’s been aptly compared to René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, which also was released in 1973, but unfortunately didn’t have Roger Corman Stateside to help it find distribution here. Despite the poor critical reception to Belladonna and the film’s scarcity, it remained a cult classic to those in the know, until L.A.-based creative studio Cinelicious found it a few years ago.
“This was the first time that the 35mm camera negative for Belladonna had ever left Japan,” Cinelicious executive vice president Dennis Bartok says. “Mushi Production literally emptied their vault of Belladonna materials to send us.”
Cinelicious is known for doing amazing high-resolution 4K scans of archival material, among many other things, so it was the natural choice to scan and restore the film for screening with American audiences. But the effort actually began when the company approached Cinefamily’s Hadrian Belove to ask for his restoration wish list.
“Belladonna of Sadness sprang to mind immediately — it's probably the most beautiful and transcendent film I knew in proportion to both its obscurity and the low quality of all known copies at the time,” Belove says.
In fact, when Cinelicious first received the package from Mushi, executives realized exactly how little care the physical copies of the film had gotten.
“It was one of those incredibly exciting, almost archaeological film moments when we cracked open the film cans here in Los Angeles, only to discover that eight minutes of footage had been cut out of the negative,” Bartok says. “Each reel was peppered with white splice tape where footage had been edited and thrown out. Our partner in Japan, Kiyo Joo at Gold View Co., pulled off a miracle when she located a lone surviving print of the original, uncensored version at the Cinematek in Belgium, and the archivists there were good enough to scan the missing footage in 4K for our restoration. So the final version is an American restoration of a lost Japanese film incorporating missing footage from Belgium!”
Unlike a lot of other long-lost restoration projects, Belladonna’s core creative team — Yamamoto, art director/illustrator Kuni Fukai and composer Masahiko Satoh — are all alive to see their work Frankensteined to life, so the pressure was on. But because no one had really seen the film as it was intended — or with the help of advanced digital-scanning tech — seeing the final version was a cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best affair.
“Even as a fan, I had no idea how stunning the results of Cinelicious' work would be,” Belove says. “When Dennis showed me the first images they had restored, I almost couldn't believe it was the same movie. I had never known about the watercolors, the tactile paint you could see.”
For fans of bizarre cinema, groundbreaking animation and all the glorious things our technology can do, Belladonna of Sadness is a classic with a second life thanks to some good old L.A. ingenuity.