Belladonna Of Sadness (Kanashimi no Beradonna)
Japan (1973) Dir. Eiichi Yamamoto
Aesthetically there is little to suggest that this baffling slice of psychedelic erotica can be classified as anime. But it is part of a trilogy involving the godfather of anime and manga Osamu Tezuka, so who are we to argue?
Based loosely on the French non-fiction book Satanism And Witchcraft by Jules Michelet, the setting is a rural village in France during the medieval era ruled over by a despotic baron and his equally spiteful wife. A young couple named Jean and Jeanne get married and per the tradition of the village has to pay a ten cow tribute to the baron but they can only afford one.
The offended Baron orders the chaste Jeanne to be given to him and every man in his service, after which Jean shuns his now defiled wife. Her sadness summons the devil, offering Jeanne the chance of immense power in exchange for her soul. Jeanne eventually gets to run the village, upsetting the Baroness who outs Jeanne as a witch in league with the devil, so Jeanne retaliates by instigating a revolution.
At least I think that is the basic story, this is one mind bending, abstract work where the narration is often sung while the rest is largely wordless save for a few lines of dialogue. We may marvel at the inventiveness of the visual interpretations of sexually related imagery and the occasional breathtaking beauty of the artwork but keeping track of what is going on proves a challenge.
If this sounds unlike the sort of thing Osamu Tezuka would be linked to, it might surprise you to learn that he was involved in the early stages of this project, as part of the Animerama trilogy of adult orientated anime, writing the first two films. On this occasion, Tezuka chose to focus on his manga instead, leaving old friend Eiichi Yamamoto to take over the reins. Probably just as well as you’d never look at Astro Boy the same after seeing this film!
Breaking the story down to its basic form reveals a fairly simple plot, a cautionary parable about one’s lust for power to combat the abuse of power of another and the great cost in incurs. However, Yamamoto and co-writer Yoshiyuki Fukuda relay it in an esoteric, freeform style that rejects traditional structure in favour of visual excess, leaving us to guess which parts are symbolic indulgences and which is actual narrative.
The key to Jeanne’s downfall from start to finish is sex and whilst it might not sound like it, there is a feminist thread running beneath the provocative and nightmarish imagery, culminating in a surprising coda that puts it all into perspective. Granted Jeanne is a victim for a fair portion of the tale but every stage of prosperity her and husband enjoy comes from Jeanne, and in doing so she ultimately empowers the other women of the village.
Joining the dots between sex, witchcraft and communal prosperity won’t seem obvious from reading an abridged synopsis, but it makes sense (sort of) if you watch the film. Certainly the idea that women hold all the cards through their sexual allure is presented as a double edged sword, making Jeanne a hard protagonist to root for having gone from virginal peasant to Cynthia Payne in the space of twenty minutes.
Religion and sex are subjects that usually clash and cause controversy in the process but the script avoids pontificating or proselytising, only pointing out that Jeanne’s rampant promiscuity is a sin against God, but balances this by making the daring suggestion that the devil throws better parties.
Subtlety, as you might imagine, isn’t a common theme in this film, the first example coming in the opening minutes where Jeanne is literally split into two during her gang rape session. When the devil first appears as a tiny sprite, he spouts all sorts of innuendo about growing big whilst sliding up and down in Jeanne’s hand, turning redder and redder; in his final form he is a giant phallus complete with the bell shaped head.
In terms of explicitness, the imagery treads a fine line of being erotic art through the sheer invention of ideas depicting the sex act and other priapic symbols. When a mass orgy breaks out, it is shown as continuous stream of action with bodies intertwined in numerous positions and phalluses attached to all manner of limbs, objects and even animals to illustrate the raw carnal lust.
This is a small example of the immense creativity on display that will either appal or raise the question “What were they on?” – being 1973, probably everything! One particular scene shows the female genitalia as a line drawing that vacillates between that and Jeanne’s body in one continuous deft motion in what must have been a painstaking process for the animators.
An unusual mix of still frames, pencil sketches, watercolour paintings make up most of the images, with passages of time conveyed through sprawling scroll like murals in which the key elements smoothly merge into one another creating a coherent narrative. Elsewhere, an orgasm scene is an explosion of colourful 20th century pop art employing techniques which have subsequently surfaced in numerous TV credit sequences.
Surprisingly the sexual content isn’t overtly graphic, obscured mostly by the extravagant artistic flourishes, nor is it particularly arousing, which should deter anyone from expecting the same cheap thrill modern fan service provides in anime. Of course there is the big question as to whether this is art or if this prurient decadence needed to be so prominently featured but sex sells and adult animation barely existed in 1973.
Recently reissued in a new 4K restoration a whole new audience now have the chance to discover and evaluate Belladonna Of Sadness. It’s unashamedly avant garde and deliberately challenging to the point of being obtuse yet artistically ebullient and daring through its unfettered creativity. Whatever conclusion you draw from it, this is unquestionably a unique viewing experience.