Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Screenplay: Eiichi Yamamoto and Yoshiyuki Fukuda
Based on the non -fiction book Satanism and Witchcraft by Jules Michelet
Voice Cast: Aiko Nagayama as Jeanne; Katsutaka Ito as Jean; Tatsuya Nakadai as The Devil; Masaya Takahashi as Milord; Shigaku Shimegi as Milady; Chinatsu Nakayama as Narrator; Masakane Yonekura as Catholic Priest
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles
Synopsis: Set in Medieval France, a farmer's wife by the name of Jeanne is lead towards Satan, spurn to him when originally raped by the Lord of her village and furthered to the Dark One when trying to survive within the context of a poverty stricken environment under said Lord's thumb. Further incidents - the growing suspicions against her attempts at a better life with her husband John, the pressure of war and the need to fund it taking its toll on the village, the jealousy of the Lord's wife when Jeanne does command power - eventually lead Jeanne to fully embracing the Devil, becoming a fully formed, nymph-like witch of great power.
Belladonna of Sadness is unique. Ditto, an obvious assessment dumb to repeat but it's worth mentioning because of how idiosyncratic it is next to what anime is today. Subtle influence does exist - Kunihiko Ikuhara, the director of Yurikama Arashi (2015) (reviewed as #41 on this blog) and Revolutionary Utena (1997) is a known admirer deeply influenced by the feature - but like experimental animation from Japan from the same period its utterly alien next to what anime stereotypically means in the West. It feels like a project that threw caution to the wind and was, the last film created by Mushi Productions before its death. Founded by manga god Osamu Tezuka, his studio would innovate in terms of animation, but before 1973 he'd already left the sinking ship to start creating some of his darkest, adult manga like Ode to Kirihito (1970-71) in response to the more adult manga others were creating, the likes of director/co-writer Eiichi Yamamoto back at Mushi deciding, rather than play it safe, to finish off what was a trilogy of erotic animated films with an openly experimental and politically minded work. It's even alien to what the trilogy originally started as, attestable having seen Cleopatra (1970), a frankly bizarre take on the Egyptian figure full of surreal tangents and flourishes that I love but understand led to it being a box office bomb, the kind that helped led to Mushi Productions sinking financially in the first place. With that in mind, it emphasises how radically different Belladonna still is within anime when its different next to already unconventional productions from Mushi.
The result with Belladonna is a period set erotic drama which sensualises witchcraft and occultism but inherently from its source text is about a figure kicking back at the world that pushes her down. Plenty of softcore, live action films from Europe from this period did the same to varying qualities, but whilst it has the gender politics of its time on the surface, Belladonna of Sadness is still exceptional when considering the period it originates from. Japanese cinema by this period and before reflects a vast conflict in terms of gender depictions, flip-flopping between films about women and their place in the world, from Kenji Mizoguchi to this, to the more problematic erotic and dramatic exploitation films. Even if trigger warnings may be appropriate to bring in when discussing Belladonna, its pertinent that for every individual who views it as being dated there's yet as many male and female to praise Belladonna regardless of it being a seventies film made by men with very explicit sexual content. A lot of the issue is a modern conundrum where inherently the idea of sexuality is immediately bias towards objectifying of women, that nudity and sexuality equals a male gaze, when pro-sexuality feminism and female writers, commentators and academics are pushing back on this bias and emphasising the greater complexity with this view in terms of films like it and how women, as viewers and/or fans of these movies, digest them. Whilst there are plenty of moments in Belladonna which are extreme and purposely transgress, it's a significantly more complicated narrative which, between the sensuality, eventually leads to a figure becoming a dominant, powerful female figure, muddying a response one can have to its attitude.
Jeanne, as merely a drawing of womanly perfection given life by art director Kuni Fukai's obsessive detailed and Western influenced illustration, and voice actress Aiko Nagayama's emotional tenors, is a sexual figure, found in many states of undress but feeling far less a figure of objectification than a figure of purity slowing gaining individuality in a patriarchal and utterly unfair world. Even if it's by means of an openly phallic Devil who starts as a little phallus than turns into a giant mushroom shaft - voiced by one of the greatest actors of all Japanese cinema Tatsuya Nakadai for added startlement - its only because of the evil of the world around her and hierarchal power that Jeanne becomes a witch, not openly embracing her sensuality but becoming a literal forest entity who transformation, much to her initial surprise, isn't the vindictive croon she wished to become but the figure of beauty and love. Paradoxically her hatred is channelled into helping the villagers when the Black Death arrives, the cost for them merely to join her in the bliss of countryside Satanic orgies where everyone is happy and is transmogrified into enough blatant imagery to give Sigmund Freud an aneurism. In fact, for a slight spoiler, the only reason her tale is a downfall is because Jeanne refuses to play ball with the hierarchy and stubbornly refuses to bend to them.
All of this is not something that can just be dismissed as merely erotic animated porn. Its openly sexual and willingly perverse, able to slide into utterly weird sequences of literal beast-human sexual organisms and conga-line coils of human sex trains that are strong images even in the current decade, but like the best of erotica (or porn, mincing terms) it's also utterly gorgeous and sticks a middle figure up to a lacksidasical ideal of this type of material being merely base or without meaning. It's too gorgeous, now restored when thought to be a mere obscurity, the weird uncle in erotic anime's closet, to view as anything but art; having known Belladonna when it was an obscurity covered on a podcast like Anime World Order as a mere fascinating dead-end in anime's history, only viewable on YouTube, seeing its resurrection by Cinelicious is utterly awe-inspiring because the artistry is so pronounced and successful. The story, while rich in meaning, is told (in the best decision) through its simple fairytale-like narrative that leads to tragedy, the focus instead in how to show its story onscreen.
Belladonna was a low budget production when Mushi Productions was on its last legs but used this context as its aesthetic template. The elegance of Fukai's work alongside the animators is helped by the fact most of Belladonna is actually still images, scrolls of illustration where time passes within the same canvas, bleeding through each other as the camera usually pans left or right along like a comic strip. When elaborate movement is done, legendary animator and director Gisaburō Sugii as the animation director for the production it's for the most subtle of facial or body language, or for the most extravagant and/or extreme moments. The willingness to push the form of the film goes as far as even breaking the historical context, suddenly breaking out a mad collage of modern sixties/seventies symbolism like cars and flairs suggesting Jeanne's full transformation into a witch allows one to see the enlightened pop art future centuries later. Keeping all of this sewn together is Masahiko Satoh's music, an academically trained jazz musician and musician who like many of his field willingly experimented into other genres, his here full scale acid rock that, far from feeling out of place as an anachronism, actually fits like many period genre films who flirted with this type of music because of its openly occult, hallucinogenic qualities appropriate for tales of classical mysticism and emotional melodrama you can synch up to wailing cosmic guitar solos.
Altogether Belladonna of Sadness is an incredible film, one that I am grateful to see properly available and in restored form. Now what was for me a mysterious, vague film in the annuals of anime - like Angel's Egg (1985), a more well known but still difficult to access experimental anime from Mamoru Oshii, another person openly inspired by Belladonna of Sadness - is now available for more to see and had the kind of retrospective premieres and screenings one would find for legendary art house films. Having only known it as a weird cult oddity before, its lush artistry grows in 4k form as does its theme, a greater power in its finale where it suggests many women will become like Jeanne in the end, climaxing in a finale still image originally from a later cut of the film Cinelicious kept in, realising that as a finale, touching upon a legendary piece of French artistry, there was a sincere coda, a meaning, to the production that does strike the heartstrings. It may have taken decades to get to that point, barring its Berlin Film Festival premiere and its box office failure nailing the coffin for Mushi Productions, a least a DVD release in Japan and maybe Germany beforehand, but the wait was entirely worth it.