VICE: Exclusive trailer for BELLADONNA OF SADNESS

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By J.W. McCormack
February 18, 2016

This Porn-y 70s Film Is a Mind-Melting Head Trip

The 1970s were perhaps the grossest chapter of recorded time, an era wherein the previous decade’s flower power rotted on the vine and a politically engaged, protest-minded youth culture dissolved into an atmosphere of distinctly hostile decadence. By the time The Joy of Sex, with its illustrations of hairy fornicators, arrived on shelves in ’72, sexual freedom had more or less given way to wanton Henry Miller–esque rutting. But for all its prurience, the decade that gave us Deep Throat, Hustler, and Plato’s Retreat was also the last time when widespread experimentation dominated the mainstream in every corner of the arts, from the creator-driven films of the New Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll’s enshrinement of the drug culture in the popular imagination to the spectacle of perfectly normal people reading Gravity’s Rainbow. It was also the golden age of cartoon sexuality: Adult animator Ralph Bakshi followed the success of the X-rated Fritz the Cat with burned-out, bell-bottomed exercises in hand-drawn hallucination like Coonskin and Wizards, and the magazine Heavy Metal cornered the market for large-bosomed women riding dragons and beating the shit out of pervy robots.

But the greatest legacy of the 1970s vogue for melding Saturday morning cartoons with Saturday Night Fever was in Japan, where anime succeeded the pornographic “pink film” in marrying transgressive and—especially in the case of hentai—graphic sexual content with eye-popping psychedelic excess. The genre’s first masterpiece was Belladonna of Sadness (Kanashimi no Beradonna), a film that has a visual style so sui generis that I can only compare it to Sesame Street if Sesame Street were, as my paternal grandmother believed, a recruiting film for LSD-addled freakazoids and the Church of Satan.

When Belladonna of Sadness was originally released in 1973, it immediately bankrupted its studio, Mushi Production. Mushi had been founded in the early 60s by manga artist Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy and Unico, and its style was largely responsible for establishing the frenetic big-eyes-small-mouth aesthetic of anime. But Belladonna actually has more in common visually with Aubrey Beardsley, Yellow Submarine, and the Tarot-card-looking output of the illustrator Kay Nielson. It’s like Bakshi at his trippiest. But here I am talking like this is not a film that features a long scene of flora and fauna—giraffes, crocodiles, orange trees, you name it—emerging from people’s orifices like something out of a Boschean Hanna Barbara, and, reader, that is precisely what I’m talking about.

The plot concerns a purple-haired witch named Jeanne and her seduction by the devil, inexplicably disguised as a little talking penis, who grants her supernatural powers. The remaining story line, if you can call it that, largely consists of Jeanne’s arcane revenge on the nobles responsible for her violent sexual assault (in a ghastly early sequence that’s made even more uncomfortable by her attacker’s striking resemblance to Hordak from the old She-Ra cartoons). The film is a Joan of Arc pastiche, a musical, an exploitation picture, and a pornographic movie—but what it really is is an excuse for a breathtaking series of montages where a singing, dancing Black Death melts faces into skulls, kaleidoscopic specters of pop-art Americana signify the consummation of Jeanne’s pact with the Evil One, and an assortment of infernal penises perform vicissitudes previously undreamt by any human penis, which is perhaps the greatest contribution an animation studio has made to creative physiology since Cab Calloway serenaded Betty Boop in Minnie the Moocher.

Even with so much stylized pandemonium, it can be hard to overlook how frequently Belladonna staggers over the line between transgressive pop-porn and the kind of outright misogyny that mars so many otherwise righteous female-driven revenge narratives. Still, given Jeanne’s uncompromising ownership of her profane desires and independence from her milquetoast husband, it was miles more progressive than anything coming out of the West in 1972. The film’s montages are bookended by still-life illustrations that resemble art-brut storyboards over which the dialogue is spoken. These episodes, with their curiously unfinished and sketchy figuration of witches and warlocks—like if Egon Schiele drew an edition of The Dungeon Master’s Guide—aren’t exactly the highlight of the film, but no worse than the old herky-jerky Marvel cartoons from the 60s. And anyway, the second half of the film is largely given over to the psychosexual exploits of Jeanne and her devil friend, who even in his final form retains a phallic hairdo and tells Jeanne, “You are even more beautiful than God,” which I think is an awfully sweet thing to say.

Belladonna of Sadness is deserving of a place in the cultural memory because it marks the moment when the Times Square porn groove met manga cuteness, and because it happens to function as an omnibus of 20th century modes, including that of the Impressionist watercolor, the fuzzy Kandinsky-esque geometric dissolve, and the prog-rock album sleeve. It is also clear from some of the dialogue (“Ignoring status is against God! The work of the devil!”) that the acceleration of Japanese pop culture was imminent, making Belladonna as much a social document as a benchmark in visual storytelling. And Cinelicious’s gorgeous restoration from 35mm and subsequent North American release means that it is destined to take its place in the personal mythos of the retro-fetishist, high-trash, obscurist, art-creep demographic alongside recent rediscoveries like Holy Mountain, Possession, and Hausu.

In other words, Belladonna of Sadness is an answer to the prayers of those whose taste in film has evolved to the point where it echoes Jeanne’s rejoinder to Satan, when he asks what she wants to do with her newfound energies: “Anything… so long as it’s bad.” Caligula would’ve wept.


Gotham Awards


By Anthony D’Alessandro
October 22, 2015

The Gothams are the first set of kudos to get awards season started ahead of any guild or critics group with a specific focus on independent films.

Nominees are selected by committees of film critics, journalists, festival programmers, and film curators. Separate juries of writers, directors, actors, producers, editors and others directly involved in making films will determine the final Gotham recipients.

This year the Gotham Awards will also be presenting two new awards for serialized television and web content. Those nominations will be announced next week.


Paul Korver and Dennis Bartok2015-best-of-la-laweekly

Most distributors of world-class foreign and independent cinema are based in New York. For the last year, Cinelicious Pics has been quietly balancing the art-house equation in L.A.’s favor. That feat is all the more impressive considering it’s headquartered in the middle of a company town that isn’t always as kind to subtitled fare as it could (or should) be. The company is the distribution wing of Cinelicious, which was solely a post production house before founder-CEO Paul Korver decided to branch out. Combining a sophisticated curatorial sense with a keen business plan, the company has yet to release a bad movie and is selective enough in its offerings for each film to feel like an event worth anticipating and celebrating. For a sample of its wares, seek out the Icelandic coming-of-age drama Metalhead, five-hour Indian gangster drama Gangs of Wasseypur or female-driven psychodramas Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.


INDIEWIRE: Josh Lucas Puts a Dizzying Spin on Sibling Relationships in Exclusive ‘The Mend’ Trailer


By Sarah Choi
July 24, 2015

Sibling dysfunction never looked so good.

Making his feature film debut, John Magary stunned audiences at last year’s SXSW festival with his acerbic and strange sibling comedy, “The Mend.” The film was especially noted for Josh Lucas’ career-defining role as Mat, a volatile and self destructive man who attempts to build a stronger relationship with his more put-together brother, Alan (Stephen Plunkett.) Lucas’ stellar performance as Mat has already stirred up some awards buzz, and showcases his ability to play complicated and difficult characters.

The film unravels in three distinct acts, each part with its own stylistic and rhythmic uniqueness, which is already evident through the equally exclusive pulsating trailer. Check it out above, and catch a glimpse of the hilarity, drama and absurdity of “The Mend.”

Deep Cuts: The Challenging Pleasures of This Year’s Japan Cuts Film Fest



By Simon Abrams
July 7, 2015

“Japan Cuts,” the Japan Society’s annual survey of pop cinema, stands apart from film festivals that pander to contemporary trends, encouraging attendees to revisit the past through an eclectic slate of both new and repertory titles.

This year’s highest highlight is, tellingly, the new 4K digital restoration of Belladonna of Sadness (1973), a beautiful and disturbing X-rated animated fantasy based on Satanism and Witchcraft, Jules Michelet’s sensationalistic historical primer. Belladonna of Sadness’s rape-centered plot — a beautiful peasant (Aiko Nagayama) makes a pact with Satan (samurai movie star Tatsuya Nakadai) after he repeatedly violates her — is a tough swallow. But the film’s surreal animation style is jaw-dropping.

Co-writer/director Eiichi Yamamoto’s Yellow Submarine–meets–The Devils aesthetic is heavily influenced by Gustav Klimt’s golden paintings and Aubrey Beardsley’s art nouveau drawings. Yamamoto draws viewers’ attention to his feathery pencils and psychedelic watercolors by presenting his illustrations as a series of still images filmed in slow camera pans. These static animation cels are so gorgeous that they might persuade you not to dwell on Belladonna of Sadness’s more objectionable content.

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Japan Cuts Film Festival at Japan Society Emphasizes the Eccentric



By Mike Hale
July 3, 2015

The annual cinematic cornucopia known as Japan Cuts — the largest festival of Japanese film in the United States — has previously been presented in association with the even larger New York Asian Film Festival. This year, its ninth, Japan Cuts is going it alone as it presents 28 features and a program of experimental shorts beginning Thursday through July 19 at Japan Society in Manhattan.

The most distinctive item on the program is this restoration of a 1973 animated feature produced by the anime legend Osamu Tezuka and directed by his colleague Eiichi Yamamoto. It’s an Age of Aquarius curio, based on a 19th-century study of witchcraft and featuring alternately flowery and surprisingly graphic depictions of sex. (No one under 18 will be admitted to the screening.) Fair warning: The story, about a peasant woman assaulted by the king on her wedding night, is both a female-empowerment fable and a rape fantasy, in which the initial attack is followed by less violent anime-style intrusions of flowering tendrils and devilish imps. But the impact of the story is secondary to the strangeness and beauty of the mostly still images (the camera moves slowly across them) done in styles resembling Klimt, O’Keeffe, Op Art, Ralph Steadman and the higher class of Playboy illustration.