Tag Archives: pink film

Belladonna of Sadness

Belladonna 1
Belladonna of Sadness

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of the East End Film Festival

Screening Date: 23 June 2014

Venue: Red Gallery

Director: Eiichi Yamamoto

Writers: Yoshiyuki Fukuda, Eiichi Yamamoto

Based on the novel La sorcière by: Jules Michelet

Original title: Kanashimi no Belladonna

Japan 1973

93 mins

As a critic with an interest in the history of Japanese animation and manga, it is refreshing once in a while to come across a film that is like nothing you’ve seen before. While some animé films save money by using limited animation here and there, before Belladonna of Sadness I’d never seen a movie where around 40% of the running time consists of the camera panning across still drawings and paintings. By using this technique so extensively in-between the more traditionally animated sections, it avoids appearing like a cost-saving exercise (which is not to say it wasn’t, as the film actually bankrupted an animation studio) and creates a very different kind of storytelling that seems to hark back to older forms of Japanese entertainment such as Kamishibai or Emaki-mono. Kamishibai storytellers would travel from town to town entertaining children with a box that had an opening at the front, in and out of which different painted scenes could be moved, like a 2D version of paper theatre, with a soundtrack performed by the storyteller. Revived in 1920s Japan during the global economic depression, Kamishibai had its roots in an older form of pictorial narrative, that of Emaki-mono scrolls, which display a story to the viewer as they roll the unfolding image from one end of the scroll to the other.

The EEFF screening will be accompanied by a live score from Charlie Boyer and The Voyeurs.

By containing filmed versions of both Kamishibai and Emaki-mono and mixing the style of older visual narratives with more modern animation (which in this case lifts imagery from 1970s fashion magazines and even a brief homage to The Beatles’ 1968 Yellow Submarine), Belladonna of Sadness almost feels like a tour of Japanese visual storytelling culture. All of this may sound charming – and indeed it often is – but the film is certainly not suitable for children, as the starting point for the screenplay was a 19th-century book called Satanism and Witchcraft (La sorcière) by Jules Michelet, and the film contains many scenes of rape committed against the central character. Although these scenes are thankfully tamer than hentai animè from a decade later, such as the risible Urotsukidôji: Legend of the Overfiend (1989), or even live action cinema at the time – for example Lady Snowblood released the same year – the imagery of a woman split apart by a river of blood that splinters into bats is still the stuff of nightmares.

Belladonna 2

The plot is a somewhat misogynist tale of a poor couple who try to raise the tithe needed to get married on their local Baron’s estate. When he demands 10 times the amount, the fiancé has no choice but to let his bride spend a night with the Baron instead. Deflowered and full of shame, the next day Jeanne welcomes a penis-shaped demon into her bedroom (and body) so she can be empowered with the forces of evil to fight the corrupt regime they live in. The fantastical and erotic elements of the film are sometimes an uneasy mix, and perhaps only the use of scrolling images to replace much of the animation prevents the film from being a gruelling experience, as the focus of the plot is often on the repeated abuse of the female protagonist.

The third in a trilogy of animated ‘pink’ films made under the supervision of Osamu Tezuka, the most revered creator of Japanese manga, Belladonna of Sadness followed two light-hearted erotic fantasies by the same director, which contained animation that was recognisably by Tezuka himself – One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). However, this film swaps the child-friendly artwork of Astro Boy (1964) and Kimba the White Lion (1966) for a striking style influenced by fin-de-siècle European artists such as Aubrey Beardsley and Gustav Klimt. The soundtrack is also exemplary, and like the globetrotting visual aesthetics, mixes sleazy Euro-pop – of the kind that might grace a 1960s film by Roger Vadim – with Japanese jazz. Only the subject matter leaves a bad taste in the mouth, which the filmmakers clumsily try to belatedly justify with a coda comparing the events of the movie with the sacrifices made by women who died during the French Revolution. But the many unique elements that make the film stand out from its peers, including the art on screen, combined with the Emaki-mono presentation, make Belladonna of Sadness a must-see for fans of Japanese animation.

Alex Fitch

Watch the trailer:

Violent Virgin

Violent Virgin

Format: DVD box set (Kôji Wakamatsu Volume 3)

Release date: November 2010

Distributor Blaq Out

Director: Kôji Wakamatsu

Writers: Izuru Deguchi, Atsushi Yamatoya

Original title: Gewalt! Gewalt: shojo geba-geba

Cast: Eri Ashikawa, Toshiyuki Tanigawa, Miki Hayashi

Japan 1969

66 mins

Violent Virgin (1969) is one of Kôji Wakamatsu’s early films. Although it is certainly part of his pink film oeuvre the film maps out many of the director’s later concerns. Like other filmmakers working in the late 60s and 70s, such as Melvin Van Peebles and Ruggero Deodato, Wakamatsu used the format of sexploitation as a way into an exploration of other transgressive acts such as extreme violence, amorality and oppression. The film does have a story: a man and a woman are held in captivity by a group of yakuza thugs and the film explores various shifts in power dynamics between the pair and this group and another group of well-dressed yakuza bosses. Yet, as the film progresses the characters appear to be more like symbols acting out relationships in an allegory rather than part of a narrative. Wakamatsu sets these tableaux entirely outdoors in the wilderness. There is no sense of a horizon and, as such, no suggestion of a place beyond this world. From here, it is easy to speculate that Wakamatsu used this form to comment on broader real-life socio-political dynamics. This comment, though, is fragmented and hinted at, and, arguably, purposefully eclipsed by erotic sensation, although it alludes to dysfunction, tyranny and ultimately meaningless struggles for leadership.

What is so refined about the film is that its exploration of domination is slippery and nonsensical. The microcosm portrayed in this dune-scape is constantly in flux. The central male character, played by Atushi Yamatoya, goes from kidnapped victim, to escapee, to killer, to demon and then to oppressor himself. So to with the portrayals of sex. Here both male and female characters go through a range of experiences of erotic pleasure, physical restraint and humiliation. Remarkably for the time and even notable now, there is a depiction of mutual pleasure in the male/female sex scenes that seems to transcend the male perspective. The women characters are seen to be as sexually and violently charged as their male counterparts. However, Wakamatsu stops short of evening the scores fully by only showing the female characters being subjected to rape.

For a film constantly switching between numerous complex sexual and socio-political positions it remains elegantly simple in its poetic rendering. Wakamatsu favours an uncluttered mise en scène. Yamatoya is nude for much of the film or wearing a woman’s slip, and his lover Hanako, played by Eri Ashikawa, is topless and wearing only her underwear. So many shots depict nude flesh against the grassy wilds or bare earth. There is something levelling about this that creates a sense of equivalence between the characters, a grounding that is present at the same time as a sense of fluctuating structures. This suggests that Wakamatsu wanted to show the characters as base essence as if he was somehow trying to get close to the root of the motivations that prompt the members of the group to behave in the way they do. He, like us, is left with a sense of enigma but also the suggestion of myriad social configurations.

Nicola Woodham

Running in Madness, Dying in Love

Running in Madness, Dying in Love

Format: DVD box set (Kôji Wakamatsu Volume 2)

Release date: November 2010

Distributor Blaq Out

Director: Kôji Wakamatsu

Writers: Masao Adachi, Izuru Deguchi

Original title: Kyôsô jôshi-kô

Cast: Ken Yoshizawa, Yoko Muto, Rokko Toura

Japan 1969

77 mins

Kôji Wakamatsu’s provocative road movie Running in Madness, Dying in Love starts as it means to go on, as the volatile political climate of late 1960s Japan is juxtaposed with an abstraction of the nation’s youthful frustration. The film begins with a black and white montage of a protest rally at Shinjuku, where demonstrators are violently clashing with the police due to the renewal of the Anpo Treaty (Japan’s security and cooperation agreement with the United States). Footage of the actual rally, shot by Wakamatsu as the demonstration occurred near the office of his production company, is intercut with staged re-enactments that place Sahei (Ken Yoshizawa) at the centre of the action, superimposing his individual struggle against a backdrop of generational disenchantment. Sahei escapes from the authorities, at which point Wakamatsu cuts to colour, as the activist flees through the streets of Tokyo, away from the incriminating neon lights of downtown, hoping to take refuge at the home of his brother (Rokko Toura). However, the siblings could not be more ideologically different, as Sahei’s brother is a police officer. Their conflicting views lead to a fierce argument, and Sahei is physically assaulted until his brother’s wife Yuri (Yoko Muto) puts an end to the beating by shooting her husband with his gun. Fearing arrest, Sahei and Yuri make the death look like a suicide, then leave the city by train, travelling across a snow-covered landscape that Wakamatsu uses to explore the manner in which personal and political identities can become intertwined with surrounding environment.

A discussion concerning the nature of their crime and varying levels of victimisation in Japanese society takes place against the grey skies of a sleepy fishing community, one of several places that initially promise escape, only to represent exile. ‘I must atone for my crime,’ insists Yuri. Sahei takes her to the edge of a cliff and challenges her to act on such suicidal thoughts by jumping, but Yuri backs away and bursts into tears, ultimately afraid of the abyss. Instead, they move further north, starting a passionate affair as a distraction from guilt. ‘We were not at home, we didn’t do anything,’ Sahei repeatedly tells Yuri, rewriting the recent past through denial as Wakamatsu cuts to images of his brother’s corpse, lying in the suicide position. Sahei tries to convert Yuri from a subservient domestic lifestyle to a more freewheeling existence, although he still requires exclusivity, and she struggles with depression. They seek freedom in the wilderness, but incur the wrath of locals who consider the couple to be impure. Sexual desire is linked with political impulse as Sahei’s involvement in the leftist movement is explained through voice-over during bouts of lovemaking: some years ago, Sahei was a romantic admirer of Yuri, but when she chose to marry his brother, he turned to social rebellion. Sahei and his brother are positioned at opposing ends of the political spectrum, with each equally committed to their cause, while Yuri occupies the middle ground, swaying in her stance and plagued with self-doubt.

Wakamatsu combines the erotica of pink cinema with the narrative tropes of the lovers on the run genre, as Sahei and Yuri move around the Tohoku region to avoid being apprehended for murder. Sahei keeps checking the newspaper, expecting to see a report of his brother’s death, but such an article is nowhere to be found, prompting reconsideration about what may have actually happened back in Tokyo. Later, the film raises more questions not only about the reliability of memory, but the level of reality on which these events are occurring. Sahei and Yuri eventually have nowhere to go apart from home, arriving in the village of the former’s childhood, where his parents still reside. Based on Sahei’s account of their earlier love triangle, the violent and disheartening dénouement of his affair with Yuki is a case of history repeating itself, suggesting that moments, or movements, of rebellion are usually followed by conformity, and that efforts made to change the status quo by those on the social-political margins will always be futile. Running in Madness, Dying in Love is a strangely hypnotic vision of disillusionment, which forms a loose trilogy with Shinjuku Mad (1970) and Sex Jack (1970).

John Berra

Go, Go Second Time Virgin

Go, Go Second Time Virgin

Format: DVD box set (Kôji Wakamatsu Volume 1)

Release date: November 2010

Distributor Blaq Out

Director: Kôji Wakamatsu

Writers: Masao Adachi, Kazuo ‘Gaira’ Komizu

Original title: Yuke yuke nidome no shojo

Cast: Michio Akiyama, Mimi Kozakura, HIroshi Imaizumi

Japan 1969

65 mins

‘Did you enjoy being raped?’ is one of the several odd and unanswered questions Tsukio (Michio Akiyama) heaps upon his new, nihilistic friend Poppo (Mimi Kozakura) while lying supine next to her on the raw rooftop concrete of a Tokyo apartment building, their infantine faces framed in a gorgeous black and white close-up as they stare into the hot August sun. On the night before in the same place, Poppo had been attacked and violated by a gang of glue-sniffing thugs – a by now dried stain of blood between their heads still witnesses the crime. The question seems stranger still since Tsukio was actually there when it happened, but although he didn’t take part, he didn’t do anything to help Poppo either and instead observed the savage event with searing emotions. A shy, disturbed teen with similar abuse experiences, he is clearly attracted to the world-weary Poppo and so she is to him, if only because they both know that they have nothing and no one else to hold onto. Heading for inevitable evil, the pleasure they find in each other over the course of one day – while exchanging their bitter agony and confusion about their traumatic past and talking about how to most suitably end their suffering – fuels their anger against the cruel world that surrounds them, and ultimately leads to unexpectedly dire consequences for all.

Anything but love, so it would seem, can possibly grow out of director Kôji Wakamatsu’s exploration into the territory of alienated youths, violent sexuality and nihilism. But then, we are dealing with the late towering giant of Japanese pink film and merely outlining the crude story is hardly sufficient to get across the strange mini-mavel that is Go, Go Second Time Virgin (Yuke yuke nidome no shojo). Having made more than 100 films (his latest, United Red Army, premiered at the London Film Festival in October 2008), Wakamatsu started his bizarre career in the mid-60s when he became rapidly notorious for this sort of highly explosive blend of dark sex, violent and radical politics infused with pop art stylistics and punkish defiance after his startlingly provocative Secret Acts behind Walls (Kabe no naka no himegoto) was labeled ‘a national disgrace’ by the Japanese press when it played at the Berlin Film Festival in 1965. Shot as a pinku eiga in four days in 1969, Go, Go Second Time Virgin is loosely based on a script by his long-time collaborator Masao Adachi, yet strongly inspired by a poem by Nakamura Yoshinori, and Wakamatsu himself here seems primarily inclined to the French New Wave and the spirit of 1968 rather than sheer exploitation. While sensitively painting his characters, he delivers his rather philosophically infused brew of violent sex and existential teen angst in a dazzling mix of multi-layered metaphors, stunning monochrome visual landscapes of intrinsic beauty, punctuated by rare splashes of full colour, and accompanied by a perfectly chosen jazz score that poignantly accentuates the ambiguity inherent in the central character’s immature psyche.

In terms of plot and structure, Go, Go perhaps ranks among Wakamatsu’s simplest films, yet it surely is one of his most horrifyingly beautiful and heartfelt stories too. An apt description for the film as a whole is the weirdly wonderful title itself that refers to Poppo’s vaginal bleeding after her second rape, but also proves a constituent element in the film in the form of a defiant poem repeatedly recited by the girl. In fact, Go, Go is all about seemingly inconsequential but secretly connected details and inscrutable forces that compel characters to actions they don’t necessarily understand. Much like in a well-constructed elegy, images and lines resonate with each other.

The film opens as Poppo is raped on the roof, and then the first rape is presented to us in an ocean-blue tinted flashback that sees the girl taken by two young men at a beach – a setting that shares haunting similarities to that of the famous beach love scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. Like Tsukio, who has also been abused by two couples who rent an apartment in the building, Poppo is not merely seen as a victim but rather gains strength and independence from her unfortunate situation. Yet, she can’t help but wishing to die, and consistently begs Tsukio to kill her. ‘I am too hopelessly unhappy to live,’ she says. ‘Even rape didn’t erase the sadness’. However, Tsukio refuses to carry out the act while also resisting Poppo’s advances. Deeply disturbed by his own feelings for her and because of what he has seen and been through himself, he is impotent with her. Instead, however, he finds a way to act out his anger in the film’s violent climax. He loves her, but he can’t tell her, and love is not enough to save them.

Perhaps this sounds like an all too predictable unhappy ending, yet the film’s eerie tone and fractured approach to characterisation – conceived as a mirror to its disenchanted, disengaged protagonists – provide the story with an intangibly lingering power and a seductive sense of mystery that sticks with you much longer than for the film’s barely hour-long running time. What’s more, although exposing different forms of sexual violence, the film at the same time resists these representations. The fact that Poppo does not change regardless of the cruelty she experiences, whereas Tsukio is reluctant to build a physical or sexual relationship with her, point to the film’s essential truth: dark sexuality is not merely a strategic decision to allow Wakamatsu to make the film he wanted to make, rather it is used as an important tool for developing his radical point of view. As much as the pinku eiga genre demands these images, Wakamatsu attempts to demolish them from within by contrasting the depiction of sexual violence with his own critique and the refusal of sexuality. It is an idea that Adachi has already used in his own films such as the off-beat sex-comedy Sex Play (Seiyugi, 1968), and eventually reaches its high point in Wakamatsu’s stunning Ecstasy of the Angels (Tenshi no kôkotsu, 1972).

Part of the film’s disturbingly obscure power derives from its elastic sense of location: even though the roof is presented as a claustrophobic, limited space, Wakamatsu finds visual magnificence in Tokyo’s cityscape, which seems to expand beyond the borders of the screen, or in the teenagers running up and down between the apartment rooms and the basement. But what makes Go, Go all the more memorable is the use of colour in a primarily black and white film. Wakamatsu revealed in later interviews that the mixed film stock was not originally intended (he simply couldn’t afford to shoot the whole film in colour), and yet, it paid off as textures come luridly alive, the colours taking on an intense headachy glare to contrast the characters’ wounded sensibility.

Such is the stuff Wakamatsu’s dreams are made of. His amalgamations of image and sound are quite unforgettable, like a sore that refuses to heal. Despite the film’s brutal violence, however, it is somewhat more sensual than that. The most haunting moments of this caustic fable are the most insistently insinuating – and the hardest to recall. But it’s the ill-fated relationship between these two misfits that gives Wakamatsu’s film its soulful sadness. As we watch Poppo and Tsukio lie on the rooftop concrete or starring down at the city’s rumbling traffic, the two seem like normal kids aching to connect. They want to let one another in and can’t. They can only share comic books, vengeance and the inner rage at life itself that is fatally eating away at them.

This article was first published in the Spring 09 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Pamela Jahn