246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

Kanashimi no Beradonna

“With all of this splendid weirdness—Michelet’s occult/feminist novel, Fukai’s ravishingly beautiful, X-rated illustrations, and Satoh’s brain-shredding score—what could possibly go wrong? Everything, according to director Yamomoto.”–Dennis Bartok, explaining Belladonna of Sadness‘s commercial failure at the time of its release in the liner notes to the Cinelicious Blu-ray release.

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Eiichi Yamamoto

FEATURING: Voices of Chinatsu Nakayama, Aiko Nagayama, , Katsuyuki Itô, Masaya Takahashi

PLOT: In medieval Europe, peasants Jean and Jeanne go to their local Lord to bless their unconsummated marriage, but the royals gang-rape the bride instead because Jean cannot afford the outrageous matrimonial tax. Later, Jeanne is visited by a demon who promises to give her power to oppose the Lord’s might and get revenge. At first she resists, but as the Lord’s outrages mount, she finally gives herself to Satan fully and becomes a powerful witch.

Still from Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • This film was the third part of a trilogy of adult animation features on Western themes commissioned by legendary anime pioneer Osama Tezuka (famous for the television manga adaptations “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion”) and his Mushi studio. The first in the series was 1969’s erotic version of “The Arabian Tales,” A Thousand & One Nights (also directed by Yamamoto). Nights was a commercial hit (although it remains unavailable on home video), so the studio went ahead with Cleopatra in 1970 (which Yamamoto co-directed with Tezuka). Cleopatra was a commercial and artistic flop, but the studio went ahead with Belladonna of Sadness anyway. Tezuka left Mushi before the final film was completed, and Belladonna bombed even more than Cleopatra. Mushi went bankrupt soon after. Belladonna was exhibited in only a handful of lower echelon theaters in Japan and only lightly released outside of that country until 2015’s rediscovery and reappraisal.
  • The unlikely source material for Belladonna of Sadness was Jules Michelet’s 1862 non-fiction book “Le sorciere” (AKA “Satanism and Witchcraft“), a sympathetic treatment which cast the practice of witchcraft as a protest against the feudal system and the power of the Church.
  • “Belladonna” literally means “beautiful woman” in Italian, but it is also the name of a toxic hallucinogenic plant thought to have been used in ancient witchcraft rituals.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without a doubt, the initial rape scene. Although the movie contains shocking, unforgettable, wild and weird imagery throughout, the expressionistic violation of Jeanne, showing her being split in twain like a wishbone as her crotch emits a bloody geyser that morphs into crimson bats who fly away, was the only one that made me mutter out loud “wow”!

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Bloody rape bats; Satan is a dick; surrealist daisy chain orgy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Belladonna of Sadness is like watching Saturday morning cartoons mixed with high art mixed with hentai, laced with acid. It’s some damned thing that you’ve never seen before.


U.S. release trailer for Belladonna of Sadness

COMMENTS: We a huge debt of gratitude to whoever’s idea it was to convince a team of Japanese artists and animators to make a film about medieval European witchcraft, illustrate it with disturbing but surrealy rendered sex and violence, and score the whole thing to searing acid rock. Belladonna of Sadness is a Western fairy tale transformed into something even stranger when seen through eyes from the Far East. It’s a feminist statement that, to use the contemporary parlance, can come across as a little rapey. The filmmakers are not just “mansplaining” feminism, they’re also “Japansplaining” Western misogyny. But I don’t feel condescended to. I’m far too blown away by this one-of-a-kind accomplishment to feel anything but gratitude to its makers.

No matter your thoughts on the slim narrative or whether the film’s themes weave together into a satisfying whole, no one denies Belladonna‘s visual appeal. And, remarkably, the mind-melting effect here was achieved somewhat on the cheap, with minimal animation: much of the time, we are just viewing watercolor stills. Often, these are too big for the frame, so the camera pans vertically or horizontally to reveal more detail and new incidents, as if we are watching a storyboard scroll unfurl. But Belladonna is more than just the lovely watercolors and line drawings; it offers more artistic ideas per minute than just about any animated movie you’ve ever seen. Sometimes the style ventures into abstract expressionism, with erotic overtones only suggested by the curvature of the lines. A rapid-fire pop-art montage, done in a crude but colorful style reminiscent of contemporary “Sesame Street” or “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons, occurs near the midpoint, during Jeanne’s transformation from victim to witch. The expected starbursts and cascading rainbows are in there, but you’ll also catch glimpses of nude women, a lady with a cat bursting from her mouth, toadstools, superheroes, samurai hockey players, and more, as the images pile one on top of the other. There is an amazing sequence near the end when Jeanne dances nude in silhouette, which segues into a series of surreal black and white pornographic sketches (including a flying penis with angel wings and a man who spouts a giraffe’s head for an erection), which then turns into a flowing ribbon of an orgy apparently being held in the strands of Jeanne’s hair, which includes bestiality and impossible phallic anatomies. Your eyes will never be bored.

Masahiko Satoh’s score is omnipresent, and during climactic moments it screeches with savage power. Satoh is usually described as a practitioner of avant-garde jazz, but his work here sounds more like an extended psychedelic-era instrumental jam, with a folk-pop tinge to the vocal number that plays over the credits. Fans of Alain Goraguer’s acid-rock score for Fantastic Planet should feel at home here, although Satoh employs a much wider tonal palette, including organ, timpani, dissonant horns, and synthesized noise along with the basic trio of drum, bass and fuzzy guitars. Satoh’s then wife, Chinatsu Nakayama, wrote the lyrics and sang the folky title song, as well as serving as the film’s narrator.

Although it’s experimentalism is off-putting to the average moviegoer, it’s the sexual violence that probably sunk Belladonna‘s chances at the box office. Jeanne’s rape scene is not graphic, but only in the sense that it’s not realistic. The visuals convey an agonizing sense of her body being ripped apart, in a nightmarish way that suggests her soul is equally violated. And that imagery keeps recurring through most of the film. Later, when Jeanne flees for her life in another confrontation the Lord and his courtiers, her green cloak and dress slowly fall away, as if the flight itself is tearing her clothes from her body, while almost subliminal partial-second shots show one of the pursuing dogs apparently catching her and having his carnal way with her. Her first official coupling with the Devil is done voluntarily (though under coercion), so the scene where the demon enters her is an exact reversal of original rape scene, with the column of blood entering, rather than leaving, her body; afterwards, the murky Satanic sex is seen through a filter of blood, and it’s impossible to distinguish whether her cries are of pleasure or pain.

Belladonna clearly intends a feminist message, which is not to say women (or men) always warm to the sex abuse imagery. The film’s stance is that, through her pact with Satan, Jeanne reclaims and rehabilitates the sexuality that was taken from her by force. The Devil, in notable contrast to the nobles, requires consent from Jeanne—he’s interested in seduction, not rape, although he is not above manipulating her. Once Jeanne embraces the darkness within herself, she inherits a power of sexual liberation. Among the insurrections she leads the peasants in is providing them with herbal birth control (most likely, abortifacients). She also leads her village in an orgy, with a psychedelic flavor. She now appears nude by choice, flaunting herself, rather than being stripped and degraded by her overlords. The film ends with a postscript (which was actually added years later in a specific attempt to cater to the film’s female fans) that compares Jeanne to the women patriots of the French Revolution.

Belladonna of Sadness‘s attempted feminist statement is a bit troubling. Some complain about the inevitable eroticization of the heroine. I think the a larger issue may be the fact that the rape entirely defines Jeanne’s character. Jeanne is forever the rape victim. Even the enormous power she wields by the climax has its seed in her rage and sorrow over that violation. If we see Jeanne as a representative of womankind, then her emblematic sadness comes from the violence men inflict on women through the ages. But the only power we see Jeanne wield comes from her rebellion against men: whether victim or victor, she is always defined by her relationship to males. And that is a sad state of affairs indeed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To summarize this film is to present a solid argument that it’s one of the most unusual ever made… compulsively watchable, even at its most disturbing.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (2016 revival)

“The bare-bones story is hardly the point here, as viewers take in the sometimes lavish, increasingly bizarre visuals and groove to a soundtrack alternating between fantasyland folk and heavy psychedelic rock. One suspects many moviegoers who stick with the film will do so just to see how weird its sexuality can get. They’ll be rewarded…”–John DeFore, The Hollywood Reporter (2016 revival)

“Get your weird on with Belladonna of Sadness, a meticulously restored edition of an analogue treasure from 1973…”–Ken Eisner, The Georgia Straight (2016 revival)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Belladonna of Sadness | CINELICIOUS PICS – includes the red band trailer, stills, up-to-date info on theatrical screenings (through October 2016), and merchandise links

IMDB LINK: Belladonna of Sadness (1983)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Restoring a Lost Psychedelic Anime Classic: An Interview with the Team Reintroducing Belladonna of Sadness – “The Comics Journal” interviews Cinelicious Films’s restoration team

Inside The Restoration Of Lost ’70s Animated Curiosity “Belladonna Of Sadness” – Article on the film’s restoration

See why Elijah Wood’s mind was blown by animated film Belladonna of Sadness — “Entertainment Weekly” interviews , Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller, whose SpectreVision company co-distributed the film’s US theatrical revival, and includes a safe-for-work clip of the black plague sequence

Exclusive: Inside Japan’s Lost Erotic ’70s Anime ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ – Jen Yamato’s profile of the restoration for “The Daily Beast” has all the basic info, plus a decidedly not-safe-for-work clip from the peasant orgy sequence

Belladonna (Anime) – Tezuka in English – Entry on Belladonna of Sadness from an English-language Osamu Tezuka fan site

TOP 5 WEIRD MOVIES OF FANTASTIC FEST 2015 – Our own mentions Belladonna of Sadness in her Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Belladonna of Sadness: A Companion Book to the 1973 Cult Japanese Anime Film – A glossy hardcover volume of stills from the movie with a few extra features

Satanism and Witchcraft: The Classic Study of Medieval Superstition Jules Michelet’s 1862 study that inspired Belladonna of Sadness‘s story

HOME VIDEO INFO: Cinelicious restored and released the definitive Blu-ray edition of Belladonna of Sadness in 2016 (buy). Naturally, the restoration is done in 4K. Supplements include three trailers (red band, green band, and original Japanese) and interviews with director Eiichi Yamamoto, art director Kuni Fukai, and composer Masahiko Satoh, each of which range from fifteen to twenty-five minutes in length.  A high-quality sixteen-page booklet with color stills and reflections by Cinelicious senior acquisitions executive Dennis Bartok puts a nice bow on the package.

Belladonna of Sadness is not available on DVD in North America, although it has been released in Japan (no word on whether there are English subtitles or extra features in that edition).

The film can be rented or downloaded on demand (rent or buy on-demand).

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Mark,” who went to a theatrical screening and found it “weirder than anticipated.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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