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.