Belladonna of Sadness (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Feb 17, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Belladonna of Sadness (4K UHD Review)

Director

Eiichi Yamamoto

Release Date(s)

1973 (February 7, 2022)

Studio(s)

Mushi Production/Nippon Herald Films (All the Anime)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: B-

Review

Belladonna of Sadness was the third film in a loose trilogy of adult-oriented anime produced by Osama Tezuka’s Mushi Production, following A Thousand & One Nights and Cleopatra. Its financial failure in 1973 would make it not just the final film in the trilogy, but the last film that Mushi ever produced—the studio went bankrupt that same year. Yet as an artistic endeavor, it remains an unqualified success, and has proven influential to this day, despite the fact that it hasn’t been widely available to view.

Tezuka had actually left Mushi midway through the production of Belladonna, leaving it in the hands of director Eiichi Yamamoto. Yamamoto had co-directed the previous two films in the “Animerama” trilogy with Tezuka, but left to his own devices, he expanded on some of the stylistic choices in those films, limiting and often even eliminating character animation in favor of taking a more consistently abstract approach. He also eliminated all of Tezuka’s trademark humor in telling this particularly somber and tragic tale.

Belladonna of Sadness is based loosely on the 1862 book La Sorciere by Jules Michelet, which had offered a sympathetic look at witchcraft by positing it as an act of rebellion against feudal society and the Roman Catholic Church. The script by Yamamoto and Yoshiyuki Fukuda tells the story of Jeanne and Jean, a newlywed couple in medieval France whose wedding night is interrupted when Jeanne is brutally gang-raped by the local Baron and his retinue. As a result, Jeanne makes a pact with the Devil, and that unleashes a chain of events that will bring prosperity and disaster in equal measures.

There’s indeed a vague theme of liberation in Belladonna of Sadness, though that’s muddled a bit by the problematic trope of having a woman gain her liberty only through degradation and sexual abuse at the hands of the male establishment. On the other hand, it does take the interesting angle that Jeanne gains her own agency by becoming that which the male power structures fear the most: a witch. She deliberately takes their irrational fears on herself by bringing those fears to life. Jeanne’s witchcraft is presented as a somewhat positive influence on the world around her, though that brings her into inevitable conflict with the patriarchal authority structures, and that becomes her downfall. The coda that attempts to show how her spirit lived on during the French Revolution doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the film, though that’s understandable since Yamamoto added it later in order to try to make the story more appealing to female audiences.

Whatever questions may be raised regarding the story of Belladonna of Sadness, it’s an extraordinary example of the limitless possibilities of the animation medium—though ironically enough, it does so by limiting the amount of actual animation in the film. The bulk of the story is told via watercolor tableaus, many of which are simply static images that the camera pans across. The actual animation in the film is highly stylized. Everything is abstracted to a remarkable degree, and that’s most relevant in regards to the sexual content. Belladonna contains explicit images, but it’s handled in a way that removes any eroticism from what’s happening onscreen—it’s graphic, but never seems pornographic. The techniques that Yamamoto employed weren’t necessarily novel, but the way he put all of them together would prove influential on animators like Ralph Bakshi. Regardless of whether or not Jeanne’s legacy survived her own death, the legacy of Belladonna of Sadness has transcended its own death at the box office.

As a product of a traditional animation process, Belladonna of Sadness was photographed on 35 mm film with spherical lenses by cinematographer Shigeru Yamazaki, and framed at 1.33:1 for its theatrical release. All the Anime’s 4K UHD release uses a 2016 restoration that was performed by Cinelicious in Los Angeles, under the supervision of Dennis Bartok. He actually convinced Gold View Company (the current rights holder of the Mushi Production Library) to ship the original camera negative to Los Angeles for the restoration work. This was scanned at 4K resolution, but a problem immediately arose when they discovered that the negative had been cut to conform to a less explicit shortened version that Yamamoto produced later. So they tracked down the only remaining print that they could find of the uncut version, which was at the Cinematek in Belgium. That print had burned-in French subtitles, so after scanning the missing pieces at 4K, the subtitles had to be removed digitally. The negative was in surprisingly good shape, but it still required careful cleanup, with attention given to retaining the original grain and textures. Color grading was challenging, as the only available references were a faded DigiBeta master and the French print, but Gold View/Mushi provided some of the original artwork as a more accurate color reference. Matching the material from the French print to the negative was also quite difficult, but they found a way to balance both that was fairly seamless.

The results as rendered on this 4K Ultra HD release are superb in terms of how they convey the intended look of the film, though expectations need to be tempered due to the limited nature of the animation. There’s no HDR grade on the disc, but this is a case where SDR seems more than adequate. The contrast range tends to be limited, and the colors aren’t heavily saturated, but they’re not supposed to be. Everything is dominated by the muted pastel tones of the watercolors, and those are reproduced beautifully here. The textures in Belladonna of Sadness are arguably more important than the colors, and that’s where this transfer really shines. The brush strokes, the composition of the paper, and even the thicker paint used in a few shots gives everything a palpable sense of structure—even the natural grain of the film adds to that feeling of tangibility. The cel dirt that appears in some shots has been left alone, which is for the best. There are just a few anomalies here and there like small hairs that creep into the edges of a few shots, but otherwise everything looks perfect—perfect in the sense that it accurately reproduces the physical characteristics of the animation, not perfect in the Disney sense of everything being artificially smooth and homogenized.

It’s worth noting that the improvements over the Blu-ray version aren’t drastic, and may not even be noticeable to many people at normal viewing distances. Compared to the Blu-ray, the grain on this release looks slightly tighter, and the textures seem just a bit more refined, but you might need to get closer to the screen in order to see the differences. Yet those differences do exist, so for those who demand the very best, the UHD is still the way to go.

Audio is offered in Japanese 2.0 mono LPCM, with removable English subtitles. Gold View Company also shipped all of the original sound elements to Los Angeles for the Cinelicious team to restore, and they did equally good work. It’s a clean track, with little in the way of distortion or other anomalies. The dialogue isn’t really integrated with the visuals, but that’s by design, since there’s no lip sync in the film—the faces are usually static, with the dialogue serving as a voiceover. Masahiko Satoh’s score is what energizes the production, and it’s well-reproduced here. There’s not much deep bass, but it still sounds relatively full-bodied for a vintage Japanese monaural soundtrack.

All the Anime’s 4K Ultra HD release of Belladonna of Sadness is a 2-Disc combo pack that includes a Blu-ray copy of the film in 1080p. Unlike many All the Anime releases, the Blu-ray is actually Region-Free. There’s a reversible insert with different artwork from the film on each side, and a slipcover with even more artwork from the film. It’s a simple yet striking package thanks to the fact that everything is kept clean, with all of the technical information and UPC codes on a separate sheet attached to the back. The extras are identical on the UHD and the Blu-ray, with the only difference being that the trailer is encoded at 4K resolution on the UHD:

  • Interview: Director Eiichi Yamamoto (HD – 23:20)
  • Interview: Art Director Kuni Fukai (HD – 15:51)
  • Interview: Composer Masahiko Satoh (HD – 27:19)
  • US Theatrical Trailer (Red Band) (HD – 2:35)
  • US Theatrical Trailer (Green Band) (HD – 1:30)
  • Original 1973 Trailer (4K SDR/HD – 2:58)

In the interview with Eiichi Yamamoto, he notes how reading manga as a child had influenced him, and explains how he got into the animation business, first with Otogi Production, and then moving to Osama Tezuka’s ill-fated Mushi Production. He then gives background on the production of Belladonna of Sadness, including why he chose the unique stylistic approach for it, and how his working methodology changed compared to A Thousand & One Nights and Cleopatra. He also gives some thought to the disappointing theatrical release in 1973, partly blaming the misleading advertising campaign, and explains why he created the alternate shortened cut. Kuni Fukai joins him toward the end to examine original artwork from the film. In Fukai’s own interview, he discusses how losing everything during the war had limited his access to manga, so he was forced to create his own picture books. As a result, he never felt influenced by manga, and feels that his biggest influence was actually Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo (something that’s easy to see if you compare the two of them). He thinks that Eiichi Yamamoto was attracted to the decadence in his own paintings, and that’s what brought them together. He also spends time examining the artistic approach in Belladonna of Sadness. In the interview with Masahiko Satoh, he talks about growing up in a non-musical family, though it was his mother’s insistence on having him take piano lessons that started him on the journey to composing for film. He discusses the score, including its instrumentation, and even plays a few examples from it on the piano.

Belladonna of Sadness remains a fairly unique experience in the world of animation, though the graphic content means that it’s decidedly not for all tastes. The beauty of the artwork forms an interesting contrast to the ugliness of the events that the film portrays, and that dichotomy is what gives Belladonna its undeniable power. That beautiful ugliness has never looked better than it does in the restoration offered by this All the Anime UHD.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)

 

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