Belladonna of Sadness

How cartoons became the ultimate acid trip

From Belladonna of Sadness to Rick & Morty, international animation has fallen deep down the rabbit hole of psychedelia.

by Sam Davies
15 January 2020, 2:00pm

Belladonna of Sadness

In 1940, Walt Disney released Fantasia, a radically experimental, pre-psychedelic film that changed how the world interpreted the word ‘cartoons’. Comprised of eight animated shorts, the film featured pink elephants, dancing hippos and baby unicorns -- all set to classical music. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it failed to break even at the box office, yet Disney was defiant: “Fantasia merely makes our other pictures look immature,” the studio’s famous founder said at the time, “and suggests for the first time what the future of this medium may well turn out to be.”

80 years later, the future he predicted has arrived. Now, cartoons are made for adults and animated films are more twisted and experimental than ever.

Rick and Morty is one hugely successful acid trip animation, and arguably the most talked about TV show on the internet. Now in its fourth series, the hair-brained cartoon -- written by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland -- follows young Morty and his grandpa Rick on strange adventures to alien planets and parallel universes. Its underlying psychedelic disposition is constant, but it’s made explicit in an episode of season four. “I’m literally time!” shouts Jerry, Morty’s milquetoast of a dad as he and Rick fly through a wormhole. It sounds suspiciously like someone who's just lost their mind on LSD. A myriad of hallucinatory imagery concurs. “I think cartoons have always embodied a certain psychedelia,” Jay, a 21-year-old fan of both Rick and Morty and psychoactive substances says. “They expand the realms of possibility in a similar way to psychedelics.”

The existential questions about space, time and the universe posed by Rick and Morty are profoundly psychedelic, but the show is not alone in the themes it explores. It may not be as revolutionary as the swinging 60s or as hedonistic as acid house’s early days, but a glance at the various technicolour trips now beaming through our screens suggests this might be a new acidic era in animation. But they are, of course, indebted to a coterie of trippy hand-drawn works that came before them.

Long before his studios became known for failsafe superhero films and an endless conveyor belt of remakes and sequels, Disney explored the psychedelic possibilities of cartoons, albeit subtly, in works like his adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s fall down the rabbit hole Alice in Wonderland, and the trippy pink elephant sequence that segued from Fantasia into Dumbo the following year. Later, in 1968, The Beatles exploited animation’s brain-melting capabilities with the LSD-laced Yellow Submarine. In more niche areas, shows like the BBC’S Monkey Dust and cult YouTube series The Big Lez Show have warped minds through dazzling animated sequences. But psychedelics even pop up in the biggest cartoon of all. Revisit The Simpsons Movie, in which Homer is given a tea by a Native American shaman that sends him into a flurry of wild visions, and then, an epiphany. That’s ayahuasca he’s drinking, a medicine brewed by indigenous peoples of the Americas containing the powerful hallucinogen DMT.

In Japan, where cartoons have been aimed at adults for decades, an enduring fascination with psychedelia can be traced back to Eiichi Yamamoto’s 1973 masterpiece Belladonna of Sadness, an opulent, orgiastic flower-power thriller about free love and witchcraft in the Middle Ages. It’s a lineage that runs through anime touchstones like Ghost in the Shell and Spirited Away, but perhaps most significant is the hellishly trippy Akira, a film in which youthful motorcyclist Tetsuo is bestowed with superhuman brain power, seeing nightmarish phantoms before eventually his consciousness expands and engulfs the whole of Tokyo. As Tetsuo reaches the peak of his mental capabilities he takes on a toddler’s form, embodying the childlike tendencies of a brain on LSD.

It came out in 1988, but Akira’s influence felt more pertinent than ever in 2019 -- the year in which it’s set. Tokyo animation team AC-bu made liberal use of imagery from the film in their crazy music video for Japanese techno artist Powder’s “New Tribe”. Netflix’s brilliant, grotesque anime, 2018’s Devilman Crybaby pays explicit homage as its hero -- whose name is Akira -- becomes possessed by demon strength. The first episode of Rick and Morty season four sees Morty transformed into an all-powerful mutant who almost destroys the world: “Real nice Rick,” moans Jerry. “Turning our son into an Akira.”

Many recent films and television series have resurrected their love for psychedelic lilt too. In Adult Swim show Dream Corp LLC, a mad doctor treats patients for OCD and erectile dysfunction by sedating them into a cartoonish dream state, all rainbow-road visuals and hazy ‘is-this-real-life?’ introspection. Lorenzo Mattotti’s The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily examines the tempestuous coexistence of human and beast through increasingly dreamy flourishes. Cannes favourite and now Oscar nominee I Lost My Body meditates upon the fragile connection of body and mind as a severed hand roves the gutters of Paris.

Liam, also 21, has watched cartoons like Rick and Morty while under the influence of cannabis, ketamine, 2C-B and acid, as well as while sober. He thinks the renaissance of psychedelic cartoons could be down to changing attitudes towards narcotics. “More people are starting to understand that, when following the rules of harm reduction, drugs can be an amazing introspective tool,” he says. “They’re a fun way to enhance a night out or experience something in a new way.”

Liam thinks it could be down to a generation gap. “The anti-authority mindset in the youth is growing,” he adds. “Seeing the rise of something as simple as the 'OK Boomer' meme, and the lack of respect for the police and authority among my peers, shows a clear sign that we don't respect the opinions or laws of those at the top, which may have acted as a bit of a catalyst promoting drug use and, as a result, a preference for psychedelics-influenced TV shows and movies.”

For all its trippiness, Rick and Morty sometimes feels a bit… pointless. But that is sort of the point in itself -- nihilism and so on, but a kind that’s at odds with the psychedelic experience, which carries with it such an overwhelming sense of meaning that many declare their first acid trip life-changing.

That makes Undone, a series about a comatose girl travelling back and forth through time, cartoons’ most mind-altering trip to date. While recovering from a car crash, Alma sees visions of her deceased dad, who implores her to journey back in time and find out who murdered him when she was a child. While coming to terms with a life-changing injury, she becomes obsessed by her hallucinations and gradually develops an ability to alter time.

“I have never seen a medium capture tripping so accurately, from the shifting lines, shapes, and colours, to the subject matter explored,” Jay says of the show. She talks about taking LSD while dealing with depression. Her interpretation of Alma’s recovery process in Undone is clear: “The metaphorical message, carried by the awesome, psychedelic art, is that you can rebuild your outlook with the help of substances that put you into such a state,” she says, “[the ones] that let you look at the world as if it's new, unfamiliar, to be learned again.”

Undone’s impression of the psychedelic is defined not by flashing colours and kaleidoscope visuals, but by maturity, introspection and healing. Jay speculates on what effect this psychedelic era of entertainment could have on society: “I think the main question people are going to ask is, ‘Is there meaning behind altered consciousness? Can I find that meaning? How can I achieve that?’ The natural answer is intense meditation or the use of psychedelics.”

Maybe wider, deeper conversations about mental health are leading animators to explore the possible benefits of mind-expanding drugs. Or maybe it’s just that Netflix and co have finally realised that half the people watching cartoons are stoned beyond belief. Sober minded or not, these cartoons are darting off into the future, round the corner and deep into the rabbit hole; whether or not you follow is up to you.

Rick and Morty