The Animerama Trilogy Psychedelic Smut and a Belladonna of Sadness By David Bertrand. In 2011 I was operating the Blue Sunshine Psychotronic Film Centre in Montreal, attempting to curate a weekend of vintage porn with my cohort Kier-La Janisse, when our fellow programmer Frank Labonte – later to run his own underground screening room, The Noah – sat us down for a clip reel from an obscure 1973 Japanese anime "for adults...

In 2011 I was operating the Blue Sunshine Psychotronic Film Centre in Montreal, attempting to curate a weekend of vintage porn with my cohort Kier-La Janisse, when our fellow programmer Frank Labonte – later to run his own underground screening room, The Noah – sat us down for a clip reel from an obscure 1973 Japanese anime "for adults."

Expecting juvenile tentacle-abuse erotica à la Urotsukdoji (1989), I instead watched three minutes of dazzling and disarming beauty, splashes of water color paints clashing against the darkest, dreamiest otherworldly elegance of Art Nouveau. There were Dutch angle shots of a woman nailed to a cross, flames and smoke gently curling around her body, later that same body ripped in two down the middle, the red blood turning to bats. On the soundtrack, a female voice crooned out a tragic ballad in the same lounge-noir vein as Meiko Kaji’s theme from Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972). The movie, 1973’s Kanashimi no Belladonna AKA Belladonna of Sadness, turned out to be one of the most haunting and beautiful marriages of hand-drawn art and the moving image I’ve ever seen.

Japanese popular animation, for all its astounding high water marks and vast quantity of output, often bears a uniform stamp. We all know it intuitively: the giant robots, the savage swordplay, the school girls in sexually titillating positions, the huge eyes and spiky hair against backgrounds of straight lines and starbursts simulating hyper-motion. By contrast, Belladonna looks more like a tarot deck illustrated by Gustav Klimt or Aubrey Beardsley. Or perhaps the Night on Bald Mountain segment of Disney’s Fantasia (1940) stretched out to feature length, with 100 times the color palette, a whole lot more nudity, and with the Church’s ultimate victory over witches, women and Devil signifying not the peace of a new day, but a death knell for the human spirit.

The director of this neglected gem is Eiichi Yamamoto (Space Battleship Yamato, 2010), the designer and illustrator is Kuni Fukai (famed for 1978’s even more ambitious box office flop, Metamorphoses AKA Winds of Change, 1978), but the Belladonna story starts with Osamu Tezuka, one of the most celebrated and prolific manga and anime artists of all time. From his generation-defining youth classics Astroboy (1963) and Kimba, the White Lion (1965; which Disney shamelessly copped for The Lion King, 1994), to his later tomes of post-war sadness and madness and imaginative bios of Buddha and Adolph Hitler (many of which have been recently released in English by Drawn & Quarterly), Tezuka has in some way inspired literally every single manga artist to follow.

By the mid-’60s, Tezuka was anxious to branch out from the youth-oriented market he’d helped create and focus on new, experimental, erotic works for adults, based on literary and historical sources well outside Japan’s own. The resulting trilogy of films, released under the banner Animerama, were groundbreaking in execution but commercial flops, eventually bankrupting Tezuka’s Mushi Productions and thus inadvertently becoming the swansong films of one of Japan’s most legendary studios. Wildly erratic, oftentimes erotic, and indefatigably innovative over every inch of film, the three Animerama productions were One Thousand and One Arabian Nights AKA Senya Ichiya Monogatari (1969), Cleopatra AKA Kureopatora AKA Cleopatra: Queen of Sex (1970) and finally Belladonna of Sadness (1973).

At 128 minutes long, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is, to my knowledge, the longest animated feature ever commercially released. It’s also the first animated film to get the "X" stamp in America, during an extremely limited and unsuccessful theatrical run three years before Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated Fritz the Cat (1972) became a sensation. One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, also directed by Yamamoto, is loosely based on the vast collection of folk stories of the Islamic Golden Age culled from India, Persia, the Middle East and North Africa, incorporating such classic tales as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Unsurprisingly, this makes for a piecemeal and convoluted plot, but works absolute wonders as an audio-visual mind melt. As the desert heat distorts the barren landscape, a shirtless man struts towards camera to a funky, slinky, fuzz riff, with the repeated lyrics (in English), "Aladdin... Aladdin... Here comes a man called Aladdin!" Psychedelic? You bet.

That ever-smiling man called Aladdin is a poor water seller in Baghdad. Witnessing a slave auction in the town square, he falls in lust at first sight with Miriam, a ravishing beauty who is promptly bought for 10,000 gold coins by the chief of police’s wimpy, effeminate son. A tornado sweeps through the medina and Aladdin uses this diversion to sweep the girl away, leading to a brief, tragic romance, a series of incredible misadventures and much political backstabbing in the Baghdad court. Eventually, Aladdin travels to the ends of the earth and, with the aid of a magic ship that grants his wishes, triumphantly returns as the merchant Sinbad, challenging the Sultan himself to a showdown of each other’s resplendent wealth. Aladdin’s sly trickery wins the day and he becomes the new ruler, where he unsuccessfully tries to bed a beautiful girl who is in fact his long-lost daughter(!). But Aladdin’s power-lust makes him a monster, working his people to misery in the construction of a Babel-like tower to Heaven. In the end, Aladdin escapes a violent overthrow to walk out of the crumbling city the same way he came in, a poor, but free vagabond.

Along the way is every odd character and visually arresting interlude imaginable, including an island of transforming Amazonian snake-women, a den of thieves and an unrequited love affair with the chief’s daughter (who spends most of her screen time with one boob hanging out of a ripped shirt). For some reason there’re also two voyeuristic shape-shifting fairies who, in one remarkable sequence aboard their flying carpet, keep transforming to newer and stranger animal species to reinvigorate their sex life! It’s like a dirty version of the shape-shifting sorcerers’ battle from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone (1963).

Things get even weirder with the follow-up picture, Cleopatra (1970), a semi-historical comedy-drama that opens like Star Wars (1977) with a starship freighter traveling through outer space! Aboard the ship, things are even more warped, as the time traveling future explorers to whom we’re introduced are played by live actors with hand-drawn animated faces pasted above their human shoulders.

It’s a stunner of an opening but, regrettably, the film that follows is too erratic and juvenile for its own good. With Cleopatra, Yamamoto and Tezuka took the anything-goes, kitchen sink approach to animation a little too far, as the makers can’t resist a slapstick sight gag regardless of tone or context. This makes for wildly unsteady viewing. Take the early scenes of Egyptian slaves, screaming and bleeding from rape and murder at the spear points of the invading Roman army, followed by a hard cut to a Sunday Funnies gag of a Roman peering under a young girls skirt, only to get a mean bop on the chin. Not to mention the leopard sidekick who’s constantly mugging like Scooby-Doo!

But for creative set pieces, Cleopatra can’t be topped. From Cleo’s super-strength vagina that crushes men’s fingers, to characters speaking in cartoon speech bubbles when a dust storm drowns out their voices, to the murder of Caesar (whose skin is Hulk green!) played out as a kabuki theatre performance. Most odd is the sudden appearance of Astro Boy himself, delivering a semi-automatic handgun to a gladiator slave, to win a coliseum fight against a big blue giant!

The film’s showstopper is a parade for returning Roman soldiers. After the fireworks subside, a frantic kaleidoscope of shots cycles through dozens of famous art pieces – Da Vinci, Degas, Dali, Picasso, Botticelli, Hieronymus Bosch, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (later referenced in Belladonna of Sadness) and dozens more – all animeramanized, animated, and cheering for the returning Emperor. Caesar himself rides inside a sleek red convertible, carried on the shoulders of a squad of bodybuilders like a palanquin. It’s a film filled with endless eye-candy, but one wishes Cleopatra would give itself a chance to find a focus and build a mood.

Three years later, Belladonna of Sadness became the final film in the Animerama series and is unquestionably its masterwork. Technically, it’s the roughest – much of the main plot is actually told in voiceover narration while panning and swooping over art sketches, bearing the mark of an unfinished work where funding has run dry. However, with art this luscious, forcing the eye to linger on the images only accentuates the tragedy, beauty and emotional impact. The effect is as unexpectedly intense as it is enduring, allowing director Eiichi Yamamoto (Tezuka was no longer a creative contributor by this point) to hold back the more complex animation for a few select showcase scenes, all of which are jaw-droppers.

Jules Michelet’s 1862 text La Sorcière is the loose source material (Satanism and Witchcraft: A Study in Medieval Superstition is the more perfunctory academic title in English) for Belladonna to weave the tale of Jeanne and Jean, a young couple from peasant stock who are ravaged, raped and discarded by a brutal and repressive medieval society that rules with tyranny, fear and the muscle of the Church. Opening on their wedding night, Jeanne is forced to give herself up to the local Baron (and his soldiers) who, in the twisted laws of fiefdom, has legal right over the bodies and souls of his serfs, at risk of punishment and religious condemnation.

Jeanne is haunted by nightmares where she’s visited by an ever-growing phallus-headed demon, who offers her powers, lusts and temptations ancient and forbidden. Meanwhile, Jean goes to work for the Baron, taking the loathed job of tax collector, scouring money from the impoverished villagers to fund the Baron’s war effort. When Jean’s arm is unceremoniously chopped off for failing to extract sufficient returns by the powers that be, Jeanne takes over the role from her husband who’s falling into alcoholism, gaining ever-increasing power and influence among the starving and superstitious villagers. But, when the Baron returns from war to find his realm ravaged by the Black Death, his wife singles out the de facto leader of the people, Jeanne, as a witch who has corrupted the commoners against them, leading to her grisly, inevitable downfall at the hands of a jealous Church and State.

Michelet’s book is ripe with rage and hyperbole, remarkable for its proto-feminist and explicitly anti-Catholic approach in recounting the history of witchcraft and its persecution. The film too, right up to Belladonna’s tragic but utterly beautiful climax, supports the idea that under a despotic patriarchy, just being a proud, sexual woman and living how you want to live is in itself an act of social defiance, protest and revolution. "Witchcraft" here is the slanderous code word for female energy and Jeanne is made a martyr for every female trait that can be slung at her: lover, wife, caregiver, whore, witch, sorceress, goddess, and, once killed, eternal muse, the creative inspiration incarnate. In a clunky tag-on ending, she is linked explicitly to Joan of Arc and the symbolic Lady Liberty of France, Marianne.

Unlike One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Cleopatra, this film is gripping in its meaning as well as its imagery; kissing and searing the brain and retinas at once. Wild diversions include an extended sequence of out-of-nowhere explosive pop art psychedelia akin to the hallucinatory Americana of Vincent Collins (Malice in Wonderland, 1982), or the montage of overlapping naked bodies fucking and sucking through the strands of Jeanne’s hair. The heavy and mellow are equally enthralling in Belladonna, from a protracted sequence of Jeanne, after her rape by the Baron, slowly washing herself behind a filter of textured glass, to the flash pan epilepsy lights that beckon the Black Plague, animated as a monstrous oil gush melting and dissolving all of man’s buildings like sand castles under a tidal wave. All this is set to the staggering psych-funk score by Masahiko Sato, which is absolutely screaming for a vinyl reissue, by the way!

At the time of writing, your best option for viewing any of the three Animerama films is unfortunately a bootleg DVD or download, or, if you’re desperate, YouTube. Beware of atrocious English subtitle tracks, which seem to have been filtered through fourth-rate translating software from Japanese to Chinese to Swahili to English with absolutely no quality testing. However, superior fan-made subs do exist. A Japan-only DVD box set of all three films was released in 2003, and repackaged in 2006, from which I’m sure all internet incarnations must derive.

Final note: While working for Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival in 2013, I was stunned to see that a French-dubbed 35mm print of Belladonna (titled La Belladonne de la Tristesse) was on the schedule, uncovered by festival director Marc Lamothe while scouring the Cinémathèque Québécoise archives. The genesis of this print, however, remains a complete mystery. There’s no record of a theatrical run in Quebec and, given the wall-to-wall eroticism and prominent anti-Catholic bias of the film, it seems unlikely to me that this obscurity made its way to local TV. I was unable to view it, but this Japanese oddity reputedly works very well with the dub, given that the setting and source material is French, and the audio is mostly narrated over still images. Hopefully, positive signs for a beautiful Belladonna future.

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