The Mike Toole Show Cult Classics
by Michael Toole,
I prick up my ears every time I hear Belladonna of Sadness mentioned. It's a grand classic of Japanese animation, part of Mushi Productions’ celebrated “Animerama” trilogy that also includes the sumptuous 1001 Nights and gloriously bonkers Cleopatra. But it's not really on par with those films—while it's visually beautiful, it's a bit infamous for its tortured production history, surprisingly adult content, and the fact that it was probably the single largest contributor to Mushi Production's bankruptcy in 1973. Yeah, it's got that Heaven's GATE vibe going on – viewed as an incomprehensible bore and extravagant waste of cash on its release, it's a bit more fondly remembered these days.
The reason my ears are pricked up is because a U.S. film publisher, Cinelicious, has picked up Belladonna of Sadness for theatrical and home video release. I'm really looking forward to experiencing this movie at the theatre; just seeing anime movies in cinemas is rare enough these days, let alone something that's viewed as avant garde, weird, and altogether outside of the typical anime aesthetic of flashy visuals and cute characters, like Belladonna. But despite its checkered reputation, Belladonna of Sadness is a movie that just had to be made. The timing was right, director Eiichi Yamamoto's vision was clear, the movie was completed (sort of—Yamamoto tweaked it a few times over the years), but despite its total failure, I'm glad it all happened.
Weirdly, the other two Animerama films are purported to exist in English. There's a widely-known English-language trailer for 1001 Nights that seems to suggest the existence of a dub (not surprisingly, I really want this dub!). Cleopatra was snapped up and touted as “Cleopatra: Queen of Sex,” in its brief U.S. theatrical run, something that Tezuka himself reportedly found hilarious, since it wasn't that kind of adult film. Belladonna of Sadness sorta was, though, which just has my trying to imagine going to theatres to see it.
You know how there's a couple of anime productions that were so tortured, they were released unfinished? (Gundress, I'm looking in your direction.) Belladonna of Sadness was almost one of them. Despite an absolutely superb animation team led by Gisaburō Sugii, the film's resources were scaled back from the earlier Animerama affairs. While 1001 Nights and Cleopatra saw large animation units humming away under ruthless line producers, Belladonna of Sadness had a looser, less formal structure. Consequently, it overran the schedule by ten months. That's a whole lot of blown deadlines. Osamu Tezuka is cited as an executive producer, but this was a formality. He'd left Mushi Production in 1972, to focus on his manga. At least, that's what he told people. I like to think he also left because his studio had turned into a shitshow, with dwindling resources and a sales manager, Yoshinobu Nishizaki, who carried off everything that wasn't nailed down (and pried loose everything that was) to beef up his own operation, Office Academy. At least we got Tezuka's Black Jack manga out of the deal. Remarkably, Mushi Production survived the bankruptcy, and are still a widely-used animation subcontractor today.
Instead of being a Tezuka joint, Belladonna of Sadness was steered by Eiichi Yamamoto, who'd soon head down the block and cross the street to write and supervise Space Battleship Yamato for Nishizaki. Yamamoto had his bona fides, though—he'd worked with Tezuka for years, directing Astro Boy and co-chairing Cleopatra . What he created in Belladonna of Sadness is absolutely unique. This film defies comparison not just to other anime films, but to most other animated films in general. Nominally a loose, fictionalized adaptation of Jules Michelet's Satanism and Witchcraft, it tells the story of Jeanne, who begins as a fresh-faced peasant housewife before, in order, being raped by a devious nobleman, experiencing a tiny bit of prosperity, falling from grace, making a pact with the Devil, and triggering the French Revolution. The story is minimal and told largely through narration, and much of the film's visuals are just slow pans over eye-popping watercolor illustrations. In general, the film kinda feels like a Led Zeppelin album cover come to life (hey, quit snickering! You got something against Zep?). There's a lot of sexual content—done in the abstract, of course, but still surprisingly evocative.
I love watching Belladonna of Sadness. Not only is it very striking visually, it simply could not have come from any other era. Its music and visuals evoke its own time period—to wit, 1973-- really sharply. The movie is silly and melodramatic, but with a marked lack of zaniness that characterized the earlier Animerama films. It's also an important film—director Kunihiko Ikuhara's has mentioned his appreciation of it, which makes sense; I'm not sure Utena would've turned out the same without this. And all through watching the film I Just keep thinking: Mushi Production had to know this movie was going to torpedo the studio, but they pressed ahead anyway. I wish Cinelicious well in their restoration efforts; the film could use some cleaning up, and deserves to be discovered by a new generation.
Thinking about Belladonna of Sadness got me thinking about more recent anime projects that are full of bold stories, inventive imagery, and characterized by their complete inability to make a timely impression on both otaku and the wider animation-loving public. These movies are either recently-minted cult favorites, or are in the process of reaching that state. The first one is interesting, because it was completed at Mad House and prepped for release in 2008. Based on the Ultra Jump manga Hell's Angels, it screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival…and then vanished without a trace for four years.
When a home video release surfaced in 2012, the film had been retitled HELLS. Intriguingly, there were English subtitles on the blu-ray, which only cost around forty bucks shipped from Amazon Japan at the time. I asked some friends in Japan why the movie had skipped a general theatrical release and vanished for four years, and they said that it was probably due to the fact that the film, directed by Yoshiki Yamakawa, was thematically a bit odd and consequentially difficult to market. This immediately made me remember sitting in a symposium in New York in 1999, listening To Production I.G. CEO Mitsuhisa Ishikawa sheepishly admitting that I.G. didn't have immediate plans for their new film Jin-Roh, because they weren't sure how to market it. I clicked the “buy” button.
I wasn't disappointed with what Yamakawa and his team were able to conjure up. On its surface, HELLS is a gritty, flashy take on the old “schoolgirl is transported to another place” tale, with heroine Linne getting hit by a car and sent straight to Hell, or some sort of facsimile thereof. At Hell's prestigious Destinyland Academy, Linne fends off otherworldly versions of school bullies, joins the volleyball team, and compares notes with the mysterious student council. She makes a friend in the dour, pointy, and nearly silent (yet inexplicably cute) Stealer. Headmaster Helvis (played with aplomb by the gravel-voiced Fumihiko Tachiki, a standout amongst an excellent voice cast), who looks like Satan in an Elvis costume, confirms that she's dead—and when the horrified Linne vows to defy her fate and swim across the river Styx, Helvis glibly insists that she can only leave if she graduates.
HELLS’ visuals, adopted closely from the original manga, are brought to life by Kazuto Nakazawa, a top-tier talent who once drew the character designs for El Hazard, but who most folks now know as the guy who made the anime parts of Kill Bill. The movie is chock full of amusing visual references to supernatural, demonic stuff like Devilman, Enma-kun, and Berserk. But just when you think HELLS is going to be an energetic schoolgirl action-comedy, it takes a crazy left turn into Biblical allegory. The film wobbles hard in its third act, which feels like half an hour of characters yelling at each other, but it asks some really interesting questions about what makes life important and the nature of Hell itself. Ultimately, Linne and the other students have unique coursework—a syllabus that amounts to the struggle against the existential forces that trap them in the underworld. HELLS is flawed, but I'm grateful that Mad House took it off the shelf and gave fans an opportunity to grab it. Interestingly, if you go to its Amazon Japan page (please disregard the depressingly miniscule four user reviews, versus the 47 that the Steins;Gate movie got), you'll be entreated to also buy Kick Heart, Ninja Scroll, Sword of the Stranger, and Redline. Those are some interesting birds of a feather.
I guess I'd better talk about Redline next. Many ANN readers will remember the first time they heard about this movie, which was Tim Maughan's gushing review, which he'd filed after seeing it at one of its earliest film festival screenings. It was galling to see a tough critic heap that much praise on a movie that most of us weren't able to fucking see for months, if not a year or two. But as the film neared release, Maughan's praise seemed natural—it had an intense, hand-drawn look that evoked great action anime from decades past, an accomplished animator making his directorial debut, and a trailer that promised something somewhere between Wacky Races and Metal Hurlant.
Not only have I seen and enjoyed Redline, I got to talk to some of the movie's senior staff when we were both guests at Anime NEXT in 2013. Veteran animator Hiroshi Shimizu, who's worked for the likes of Hayao Miyazaki and Masami Hata, just smiled rakishly and complained that Koike's approach demanded animation cuts that were so detailed they were really difficult to draw. His collaborator, the director Sayo Yamamoto, created background artworks and storyboards for the film. She'd previously worked closely with Koike on Redline's underappreciated OVA predecessor, Trava - Fist Planet, and was effusive in both her praise for Koike's talent and focus, and for Mad House's commitment to seeing the movie through.
That last bit is actually a pretty big deal. Redline took six years to complete, a hell of a lot longer than its original schedule, but Mad House stuck it out and got the movie done to their director's standards. Infuriatingly but predictably, this gorgeous, eye-popping, accessible film debuted at Japanese box offices with a measly 12.7 million yen from 56 screens. That's about how much money the anohana movie made… in the United States. In Japan, the anohana movie raced to a billion yen, around $10m, in 2 months, making it part of an exciting new trend of modest hit anime films. Redline was never gonna be part of that trend, and now I wonder how long it's going to take before the movie creeps into the black.
The next cool movie I'm going to talk about was directed by a real auteur, an animator with experience and a distinctive style. The movie is based on a cult-hit manga, and muses intelligently on the nature of life and death. Sounds like the movie I brought up a few paragraphs earlier, right? But this time it's not HELLS but Mind Game, Masaaki Yuasa's critically acclaimed adaptation of Robin Nishi's manga about a schlub who dies in a hilariously dumb, violent way, but then convinces God to let him have another crack at things. Our hero Nishi (an amusing projection of the real-life manga artist), his childhood crush, and her sister end up on the run from the Yakuza, before ending up in the belly of a whale. Cool, another Biblical allegory!
Mind Game has wildly disparate visuals—at turns it's cartoonish and simple, or gritty and detailed, or animated using stylized photographs. It feels like an anthology film, but is actually a continuous single story. And despite its despite its frenetic, flashy visuals, it's somehow way more meditative than the thematically slightly-similar HELLS. Mind Game's probably the most upbeat, optimistic movie about existential dread I've ever seen. Happily, it won a pile of domestic festival awards, even pipping Howl's Moving Castle for the top prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival, and quickly gathered a cult audience abroad. Of the films discussed in this column, Mind Game has probably left the most immediate impression. Still, it's annoyingly obscure.The movie's not exactly hard to find, but I kinda wish fans in North America could get it locally, instead of getting the DVD from Japan or Australia.
That same year of 2004,Gainax alumna Hiroyuki Imaishi kicked out a lurid little action film—at 50 minutes, just long enough to be a feature—entitled Dead Leaves. I've talked to some fans who don't like Dead Leaves, because they contend it doesn't have enough of a story. They're correct; Dead Leaves’ plot has just enough substance to set up the movie's 47-minute crazed, screaming, run-n-gun spree, as misfits Pandy and Retro shoot the place up, go to space jail, and escape to wreak more havoc. There's no story to latch on to here—it's just a kinetic, raw slice of unfettered imagination. Anime fans really fell for Imaishi and his approach with Gurren Lagann, and his reputation was further cemented with Kill la Kill. Well, if you ask me, Dead Leaves is, in a purely visual sense, a meaner, crazier Kill la Kill. Given KLK's popularity, I feel like it's time to rediscover Dead Leaves. People will just understand it better now. Fortunately, it's still in print.
We can look back at these fine animated movies-- Belladonna with its hypnotic, painterly imagery, HELLS and its razor-edged, action-packed spiritual allegories, Redline's finesse and meticulous approach, Mind Game's relaxed pace and eye-popping visuals, and Dead Leaves’ over-the-top craziness—and give thanks. These are all films with minuscule to modest commercial potential, but backed by studios that give a shit about making great animation and took a gamble. Each of these films will leave animation lovers grinning broadly, but for largely different reasons. Gradually, each one has found their respective cult audience, but they're never gonna be popular in the way that otaku darlings and mainstream hits are. Despite all that, they're a vital part of the anime ecosystem; don't forget to seek them out in between your viewings of the really popular stuff!
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