If you’re looking for something decidedly different — not to mention eyebrow-raising — to watch this month, then Elijah Wood suggests you consider the 4K restoration of the Japanese animated movie Belladonna of Sadness. Directed in the early ‘70s by Eiichi Yamamoto, the film relates the story of a young peasant woman named Jeanne, who is raped on her wedding night by the local baron, and then subsequently empowered, but also further molested, by a very phallic-looking Satan.
Almost never screened in the U.S., the film is now being distributed by Cinelicious and “co-presented” by SpectreVision, the horror company set up by Wood and filmmakers Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller, whose movies include such varied releases as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2015’s The Boy, and Cooties.
Below, Wood and Noah talk about their involvement with Belladonna of Sadness, which begins its theatrical run at New York’s Metrograph cinema and the Alamo Drafthouse’s New Mission theater in San Francisco, today, and will be available via VOD and digital platforms, July 12.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this film come across your radar?
DANIEL NOAH: Cinelicious are a very high-end post house (post-production facility) in L.A. and they are also deep cineastes. They have some of the best equipment for 4K scans that money can buy and they decided to get into the business of restoration and release. They went to Hadrian Belove at Cinefamily (a non-profit, which screens cult movies) and said, “If you could restore and release one film, what would it be?” And Hadrian immediately said, “Belladonna of Sadness.”
The film is kind of a Holy Grail-lost masterpiece that’s only really been available on really degraded formats. The history of the film is that it was the third in a trilogy from the studio that did Astro Boy. The company was going bankrupt, and the theory is that there was one more film they were going to crank out before they closed the doors, and there was absolutely nothing to lose by just going for broke. So, they made this weird masterpiece that pushes the envelope very, very far in a number of areas, in its gender politics, and its depiction of eroticism. It was also unique in terms of the animation itself, which consists of a combination of traditional animation, and also paintings and long scrolls which move past the camera as you’re hearing dialog. [But] the company went under and the movie was never released [in America]. It just languished.
Cinelicious looked into it and were thrilled discover that all the elements for the restoration were available. Cinelicious and Cinefamily were interested in putting as much energy behind it as possible and because we’re very close with both the entities they approached us about coming on as presenters so we could help spread the word. As we are doing right now! [Laughs]
How did you two first see the film?
DN: Cinefamily screened it for a whole bunch of filmmakers, and actors, and so forth. I was there and I then got a link and sent it to Elijah.
ELIJAH WOOD: I was utterly blown away. It blew my mind. There’s nothing like it. The restoration is so beautiful. I had seen some images and was obviously super-intrigued by the animation style. But it’s something altogether different when you see the 4K restoration. It’s so unique, to blend traditionial animation with these sort of tableaux paintings that the camera’s passing over. It’s really just unparalleled. I’ve never seen anything like it. Then couple that with the almost psychedelic score. I’m such a huge music fan and I was kind of floored.
There are some very strong sexual elements in the film. If somebody hasn’t written a thesis about the gender politics in this movie, they should definitely submit the grant application ASAP.
EW: I know. I mean, we take the stance that it’s effectively a feminist film. It’s very much about female empowerment. But it definitely is a powerful film for people to see.
This seems to be such a SpectreVision film in as much as it’s not like any of the other Spectrevision movies, which are themselves, individually, not like any of the other Spectrevision films.
EW: [Laughs] Well articulated.
DN: [Laughs] That’s fantastic.
EW: I love that. Yeah, when we were given the opportunity to come aboard, it sort of tickled a couple of funny spots for us. It was an unseen film that we had the opportunity to show to people, but it was also unlike anything that we had seen before, and it is a genre film, and it’s very subversive, and it’s dark. It ticks a lot of the boxes for us creatively. Like you said, we are drawn to things that are slightly outside of normal boxes in genre cinema. This very much is that kind of thing.
You can see the trailer for Belladonna of Sadness below and an exclusive clip, above.