#120 : Belladonna of Sadness

BoS_1On the surface you may think Belladonna of Sadness is some pornographic psychedelic fest of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. Hedonism at it’s height and yet far from it. Yes this is an erotic movie, very sexual indeed at certain parts, though much of what is brought out through the sexual act is not pleasurable or idealized. With pleasure comes pain, much like any responsibility, including love. Belladonna of Sadness is a title for ‘mature’ adult audiences, told partially through an erotic perspective, with so much more going on that to dismiss this film as simply a wild psychedelic skin flick would be an injustice.

BoS_2Mix elements of The Beatles Yellow Submarine, Gustav Klimt, the Ryder Waite tarot deck (or maybe even Yoshitaka Amano’s deck… I use this one) and beautiful organic line work accented by watercolor fills and you get a general idea of the look of a tale of a Medieval maiden by the name of Jeanne (is it me or does she remind you of Fujiko Mine from Lupin III?). Recently married to her beloved Jean (a perfect pair of opposites/polarity?) the honeymoon is completely spoiled due to the kings need for taxes. When Jean is unable to pay the fees it is up to Jeanne to come up with a solution. Selling her soul to the Devil and exploring the dark night of the soul via sex and witchcraft, Jeanne soon becomes targeted as a witch. Yet she admired by the townspeople as she brings help to the suffering via her femininity and the use of belladonna, a nightshade that can be a medicine, hallucinogen, or poison depending on the dose. Now for the ultimate question, are Jeanne’s methods and new role, both of which exist outside the established patriarchal order, considered methods of evil, or balance?

BoS_3Belladonna of Sadness may be an anime, but it does not follow or accept the traditional look typical of Japanese animation as stated previously. The look is more akin to western sensibilities, yet I doubt any western studio would dare to give life to a project like Belladonna of Sadness. I give thanks and respect to Mushi Production and studio head Osamu Tezuka for creating such an uncompromising piece of art. The animation most of the time is sparse and at times is nonexistent in sections where the only movement was the action of scrolling long still collage images. Is this animation, or fine art passing as a film? Still shots could pass as canvased paintings much more so than just painted acetate cels. Much akin perhaps to Angel’s Egg, Belladonna of Sadness could belong in an art gallery setting instead of the usual theater venue.

BoS_4The original source material, a novel by Jules Michelet named La Sorcière (The Witch, though the title is better known as Satanism and Witchcraft) is unknown to me, but this did not block my own interpretations. Much of the themes reflect the history of the subjugation of the divine feminine and the fear of our more ancient principles and primal desires. The aspects of the darker subconscious, raw sexuality, the use of psychedelic substances as a way of altering ones consciousness and the worship of the feminine as supreme Goddess. Is the Goddess a witch, or a savior? …think Lilith, the untamed feminine. Reminds me of the Hindu goddess Kali… just what is God? SHE is darkness, the void, wild and terrifying beyond compare. The polar opposite to the Abrahamic ‘father’ image. In medieval European society and even still in our ‘modern’ cultures, much of what is listed above was and is still at times considered heresy. Yet this is only because that is what we have been told. Where is truth? How can such darkness be natural? And just what, or who is the Devil really?

Like any hallucination that takes the your mind, your ego, your essence into a different sphere of consciousness, viewing Belladonna of Sadness changes your perception of anime and perhaps even a part of yourself. Be gentle when viewing this film as mind blowing adventures always leaves something behind that you must take full responsibility for as it is now a part of your experience. Belladonna of Sadness is more than a movie, it’s a full blown awakening.

#54 : Neo-Tokyo

Short collections are always welcome in my world. Anime often becomes a system of stereotypes… Shonen fighters, magical girls, mecha, Ghibli films. All are great, but is this all that there is to Japanese anime? And of course the answer is absolutely not. There is always something of an alternative. Something more artsy, a little bizarre and uniquely it’s own thing. Art for arts sake and without compromise. A true hallmark of that awesome studio known as Madhouse, welcome to the trilogy Manie-Manie Labyrinth Tales, better known here in the west as Neo-Tokyo.

NT_1We begin with my personal favorite, The Labyrinth. Directed by Rintaro, this a feast of visual delight. Rintaro has always been known for being excessive with visuals to the point that what you are watching becomes more important that the story itself. The story is simple here, an imaginative girl who while playing with her lost and found cat gets sucked into a surreal psychedelic ‘labyrinth’ that leads to a circus via a clock. It just goes to show, watch the invitation you receive from Pierrot-type clowns around grandfather styled clocks. I don’t know if this segment has a meaning or point and I don’t care. It’s pure Rintaro and often when I watch his work I just want to bask in it like a painting in a museum. Plus having the music of Erik Satie is a plus for me 🙂

NT_2The second part known as The Running Man is perhaps the most recognized of the trilogy. I believe this had some play on MTV back in the day and it was in the promotional material of Streamline Pictures. This film looks and feels like its creator, Yoshiyaki Kawajiri. He is best known for a lot of seinen action, think Ninja Scroll, but you cannot deny his talent as a character designer. Top notch, meticulous detail exudes in this tale about a reporter who has followed an unbeatable professional racer throughout his career. How has this man survived for so long in this dangerous sport and how long will he last at the top? The action is fast paced, but the sections where it feel that time or movement slows to a grinding halt is where the real drama begins.

NT_3Now to the final segment, I present Construction Cancelation Order. I can sum this one up with one name, Katsuhiro Otomo. It’s Mr. Akira essentially and yes this is a tale where the societal conditions have gone wrong, except this one has a bit more humor. A nerdy salaryman inspector is to visit a construction site in the remote region of South America to essentially shut it down. And that is a tall order as the machines have total control of the situation. And even though the site is in effect falling apart at the seams and abandoned, the worker robots still continue as programmed. Can our faithful inspector do anything to stop this insanity, or is their a way to just get out alive? This reminds me a lot of Otomo’s later work Roujin Z where he shows how letting technology thrive to solve our everyday problem without a safety net can bring disaster and a chuckle or two.

Hold on… we are going back to the first segment again to finish off as a sort of coda. The labyrinth doors closes… The end. Lets gives a round of applause for our three directors everyone.

NT_4So… what does this trilogy of shorts have to do with a title like Neo-Tokyo? Honestly, I can’t see one, except… except that it was most likely borrowed from that contemporary hit film, Akira. As stated, Akira was a license to print money here in the west back in the early 1990s and it’s creator and director Katsuhiro Otomo was associated with the film right off the bat. I am sure the consensus was… we need to find more work that features this guy to cash in on this Akira trend. And of course Neo-Tokyo was prime for the taking as there was not much else out at the time that had Otomo’s name as director on it. Too bad this film is nothing like Akira and that is neither good, nor bad.

A distant cousin to another all time favorite of mine, the beautiful Robot Carnival, Neo-Tokyo is for me darker and perhaps more streamlined. Helmed by three of Japan’s best directors and produced at Madhouse, Neo-Tokyo stands as one of the best examples of how far Japan stretched animation in the 1980s. I often have forgotten about how unique this one was in the past, but that is true no more.

#25 : Robot Carnival

Robot Carnival is phenomenal… beautiful. Nine short films of pure genius. Much like picking up a package of new crayons, there is a color or two or maybe even nine that appeal to you? I have my favorites for sure, which I will disclose in time. There are many omnibus or collective productions that have come over from Japan, but Robot Carnival to me trumps them all. It is art for art’s sake and for all the directors who were a part of the production I am sure this was the assignment… ok you have about 10–15 minutes to tell a story and include some aspect of robots… have fun!

I have always enjoyed Japan’s view of what a robot is or can be. It is not some machine to be used for comedic entertainment or a scary monster that shows the darker side of technology. A robot can be a great force or nature, a superhero, a vehicle that has be piloted by someone, your best friend, but above all else a robot can also be as human as you or me. After all are we not organic machines that have emotional connection, the same can be said of something that is inorganic. Mixed with the free interpretation of what a robot can be allowed a large range of creative expression shown in Robot Carnival. No two pieces look or feel the same. But the one constant is the great music. Most of the shorts have no dialogue so in a way they are kind of like music videos. And guess who wrote the music for all of these shorts except one of them? That Jo Hisashi guy! Yes, Mr. Jo has a backlog of other soundtracks beyond the Studio Ghibli canon.

rc_1Robot Carnival begins and ends with it’s most well known creator’s vision of the “Robot Carnival” coming into town spreading it’s joy and fun. Katsuhiro Otomo (the Akira guy) shows his usual style by having this gargantuan transport vehicle partying it up as it travels through a barren landscape. The only thing is this party is laying waste and destruction in the wake of the vehicle’s journey (so Otomo). But hey look at music festivals and such after everyone leaves, it’s a major mess and trashed. Rock on the rolling Robot Carnival… ee maybe Carn-evil?

Alright I am going to go over the next grouping that I consider my also rans and then I will go in backwards order of my favorites from there. Not saying these are bad or they may not be a favorite of your’s, it is just that my tastes favor the shorts I will anounce later. Franken’s Gears is darkly funny and a complete rehash of Shelley’s FrankensteinStrange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion is funny and over the top. And Chicken Man and Redneck or Nightmare is one that I often look over and too be honest if I can give it another go I would probably favor it more. Now for my favorite four, the our seasons, fab four, the Beatles… 

Number 4… Presence: If any of the shorts is standard stock and trade shonen action and could have been turned into a longer single release OVA, this is it. Heavy action, driving music and awesome hair. Girl gets kidnapped, hero saves the day and a whole lot of fun… and awesome hair!

rc_2Number 3… Starlight Angel: Two girls having fun at an amusement park and one sees her beau being friendly to her friend (creep deserves a SLAP!) and girl gets mad, loses necklace and a robot in the park tries to return it. Then again some over the top stuff where a big bad robot takes her away and the robot mentioned previously turns into a handsome guy and saves the day… and then they fall in love. I love shojo and the work of Hiroyuke Kitazume and Starlight Angel has both. This one always reminds me of my niece and the times we (and my sister) had fun times at Six Flags and also her love of going to Disney World. To me she is the “Starlight Angel”.

rc_3Number 2… Presence: Loss, regret, can I be loved? This one could be the pièce de résistance of the whole collection for the production quality alone. Not that the other works are a slouch, but the detail work particularly with clothing and motion show a true strength of the old paint and cel technique. The story is about a man who basically is lost in his life. His marriage is dull, his wife seems to be more successful than him and all the usual responsibilities of being a man seems to have drained the life from him. He creates a female robotic companion, but when she comes to life she asserts her independence and again he becomes frustrated. This one is often looked at as an erotic piece, but I have to disagree as it is a much more metaphorical tale of looking to connect in a genuine relationship.

rc_4Number 1… Cloud: Yes, Cloud! But it’s slow and boring and doesn’t do anything. It’s basically a kid walking with minimal background changes and piano or synth music… SHUT IT. Yes it is in a ‘way’, but it is not slow, or boring, or bad, or stupid, it’s BEAUTIFUL! It is perhaps the most relaxing animation I have ever experienced, almost the equivalent of ambient music (Brian Eno anyone?). And the music makes it that more magical and this is the only production that does not feature notes from Jo Hisaishi. That, and I really like the wandering kid. He reminds me of myself as someone who is a daydreamer on a quest. So yeah, Cloud is my numero uno.

Lightning in a bottle. That saying comes to mind when I think of Robot Carnival. It may only happen once and when it does be thankful that you had the opportunity. Besides the older otaku culture who raves over this collection it can be in many ways a gateway drug to introduce Japanese animation to anyone who may not be warm to it. The limited dialog and shorter lengths makes easy digestion. But for those of us who love Robot Carnival, it is almost a religion. I am a proud fan of this one and glad to still keep my old laserdisc release even though we got a DVD release (Discotek, you made a miracle come true) as this is one of the reasons why anime is so much more than just the term anime.