Belladonna of Sadness

Year: 1973
Production Co: Mushi
Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Writer: Yoshiyuki Fukuda/Jules Michelet/Eiichi Yamamoto

Not many people know this, but famed The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover director Peter Greenaway became a passionate advocate of using new technology to tell stories (he was an early advocate of Second life, for one thing).

As far back as 2011 he told an Australian newspaper that 'most cinema is illustrated text – it should have primarily been a visual medium - but nine times out of ten the visuals take second place to the narrative text'. Rather than the conventional wisdom that story is dead in movies, he was saying movies were being used only for story, but that the medium offered so much more.

If you look at the mainstream (read; Hollywood) of cinema, he's right. The visuals of many movies become increasingly indivisible from what came before (not just in blockbusters with too much CGI, either – the language of screen stories is becoming increasingly homogenised) and that's before we even start talking about how many of the narratives are just endless rehashes of Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces.

That's all a very roundabout way of explaining that Belladonna of Sadness (originally released in its native Japan in the early 1970s and now rediscovered and re-released on DVD by arthouse American distributor Cinelicious Pics) exploits the medium of cinema in ways you've never seen and addresses the shortcomings Greenaway was talking about.

It's the Shogun age in feudal Japan and two young villagers, Jean and Jeanne, are deeply in love. But when the local warlord rapes her on her wedding night, the social mores of the times see her as tainted, so despite her lover's continued devotion, she's banished to the countryside.

In her despair, Jeanne makes a pact with the Devil, promising that if he gives her magical powers she can take back to her village to visit revenge on those who wronged her, he can have her soul.

That's the story, but it's only half the, er... story. The rest is a visual style you've never seen before, even in animation. Like Fantastic Planet, the French/Czech animated sci-fi fantasy that came out the same year, it contains long, languid sequences that set a scene without telling you much about what's happening in it. Many sequences are simple pans across or zooms out from huge still images, lush paintings whose scope is revealed gradually. Sometimes one or two details come to life and move, sometimes not.

The representation of the story is as psychedelic as the way the images are framed – Jeanne's hair and (occasionally naked) body is composed of swirls and tendrils that drift around her like each strand or finger has a life of its own. The animation is sometimes comprised of such simple line drawings the only real focus is her eternally sad eyes.

It's not for everyone – the sexual politics of the storyline are pretty troubling, for one thing – but if you're getting increasingly tired of the endless Marvel/blockbuster/reboot business models masquerading as entertainment, it will remind you of just what cinema can – and should – do.

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