"Our civilization is starving for great images," director Werner Herzog is reported to have once said, "and without them, we will perish." I sometimes imagine director Eiichi Yamamoto created Belladonna of Sadness to satisfy his own wild hunger for same, and that the rest of us are just lucky enough to have been along for the ride. Mainstream filmmaking in Japan once had a shamelessly experimental streak, and Belladonna is a proud artifact of that era. And while for an animated film it actually has very little animation — today, we'd call it a "motion comic" — what little animation it does have is some of the most delirious, grotesque, and fearless ever conceived.
The devil's share
Belladonna is set in France's Middle Ages, and begins on an innocent fairy-tale note suited to the setting. Humble farmer Jean and maiden Jeanne, young and deeply in love, are to be married. The lord of the manor, however, is not satisfied with the one cow's worth of tax Jean pays as tribute for Jeanne. He wants ten times that much. Failing that, he can always take Jeanne's virginity. No fairy tale, this — or, if it is, it's of the old-school Grimm variety. When Jean haplessly realizes that may be the only currency either of them have to spare, the lord and his men set upon Jeanne and rape her. The rape is not shown as rape being seduction, but rape as violence and dominion; the animation shows Jeanne being not-so-metaphorically torn up the middle into bloody halves.
Despondent, Jeanne finds herself visited by none other than Satan — voiced by the great Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai — who manifests to her at first in the form of a tiny, phallic imp. (The movie is never subtle about is sexual allusions.) She is only too happy to give herself to him in exchange for power — but she gives only her body, defiled as that already is, and not her soul. That belongs only to Jean, and she is able to rationalize the trade by saying all this is for Jean's sake.
At first it seems to work. Jean's fortunes rise, and he becomes the tax collector for the village. Jeanne's own handicraft, her thread-spinning, brings in a fortune of its own. But their success draws envy and distrust; surely such things are the sign of the devil's meddling. At night, Jeanne is visited by Satan — in one scene, as snakes winding himself around her body, like a one-man Laocoön group. Jeanne may insist her soul is her own, but the devil has his ways, most of them by way of making Jean suffer.
When Jean is unable to raise enough money to fund the lord's new war efforts, he loses his hand in punishment. Jeanne's response is to prostitute herself to the village moneylender, a variety of shamelessness that comes all the easier to her now. For each step she takes in this manner, she consolidates her worldly power all the more, but is yet another step away from Jean. And when the war ends and the husbands of the village return, the villagers turn on her and drive her into the wilderness. Even Jean takes no pity on her. The only one who will receive her with open arms is Satan.
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law
Two striking things happen after Jeanne gives herself over entirely to the devil. The first is how Satan himself all but disappears — he does not make another appearance "in person". If anything, his importance in the story has been eclipsed by Jeanne, as she embraces the powers of witchcraft. The other thing is how she uses her power mainly to aid the villagers, to counter the deadly effects of the Black Plague ravaging the land, and to bring them all the more to her side against the lord.
Becoming a witch, the story is arguing, has been a good thing for both Jeanne and everyone else around her. It provided her with a source of worldly power unavailable to her before, one greater than armies or money, a way to win hearts and minds. The lord and his wife are both determined to take her down, and they counter by way of having Jean bring her a message: If she doesn't teach the lord these powers, or put herself in his thrall, she'll be burnt at the stake. But for Jeanne, it's not enough to be offered just half the world; she wants all of it, or nothing.
I am always of two minds with any story where rape is a plot element. Ninja Scroll is one of my current negative examples; there, one of the main characters is repeatedly put into sexual peril, mostly as a way to give the (male) main character something to rescue her from. With Belladonna, though, Jeanne's violation and her further use of her sexuality is an actual story element — it's central to Jeanne's struggle against a world where the only way women are not somehow suspect is if they are not fully female to begin with. Better to become, all the more completely, the thing they hate and fear, and use it against their oppressors.
Small wonder that when Belladonna entered theaters in Japan for its very short run there, the one demographic that seemed most intrigued by the film was college-aged women. Like the antiheroines in the Nikkatsu exploitation pictures of the period — e.g., Meiko Kaji as Lady Snowblood — Jeanne seems an unlikely feminist heroine. But the best of those films rose above being mere grindhouse sleaze thanks both to their gut-level social commentary and their fiery, independent central characters. Belladonna works the same way: it starts as a psychedelic whirpool of sex, horror, and fantasy, but in time builds a case for Jeanne as a feminist figure by showing us how she persuades herself she is one as well.
Despite being produced by Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Production studio, nothing about Belladonna showed the hallmarks of a corporate product; it was a maverick project from one end to the next.
Director Eiichi Yamamoto had overseen two other theatrical animation projects, A Thousand and One Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970), for Mushi Pro's adult-themed "Animerama" film series. Both were produced by large animation staffs, but Belladonna was qualitatively different — it came out of Tezuka's impulse to do something truly experimental and boundary-pushing, and so according to Yamamoto featured only a few people working for a year and change on end. The director of animation, Gisaburo Sugii, was the same man who later on would give us a phenomenal and also-hallucinogenic adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad.
Also on board was artist and designer Kuni Fukai, who brought to the production its dreamy, decadent art style. Dennis Bartok's essay for the U.S. Blu-ray Disc release of Belladonna compares his work to painter Gustav Doré, adult-comics illustrator Guido Crepax, and George Grosz's caricatures. I thought also of three other artists who combined sexual decadence and cartoonish humor: Aubrey Beardsley, Franz von Bayros, and Tomi Ungerer — the latter being the most contemporaneous influence, given how much of Belladonna's design is of a piece with the hip pop-art erotica of the time. (Jeanne herself is reminiscent of a more melancholy version of Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella.)
Yet another major talent involved was composer Masahiko Satō, one of a whole strain of Japanese musicians from the period who seem comfortable in both "powdered wig"/academic territory and popular music — e.g., Toru Takemitsu, moving easily between highly rarefied experimental compositions and big-budget, major-league film scores (Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face Of Another, even the Michael Crichton "Japan-anoia" thriller Rising Sun). Satō's 1971 album Amalgamation is an end-to-end free-form freakout, of the sort then popular in avant-garde jazz and rock circles. It presages the way Belladonna's score works, which intersperses tragic torch-song balladeering like the breathy, erotic theme song (sung by his then-wife Chinatsu Nakayama) with fuzz-toned, keyboard-driven garage rock.
One other key person was the screenwriter, Yoshiyuki Fukuda. (Samurai movie buffs might know him as the scribe for Masahiro Shinoda's film about legendary ninja Sasuke Sarutobi, Samurai Spy.) For Belladonna, he took as his text a curious 19th-century work, La Sorcière, by Jules Michelet. Better known for his massive Histoire de France, Michelet's Sorcière purports to be a history of witchcraft in Europe's Middle Ages. Its value as history is questionable, but it reads today as a kind of proto-feminist tract, an attack on organized religion and its demonization of womankind.
Belladonna is mainly a retelling of one representative anecdote from the book, in the same way Matteo Garrone's film Gomorrah did not attempt to be an event-for-event reconstruction of Roberto Saviano's nonfiction book about the modern-day Italian Cosa Nostra, but more about its overall flavor. The film most definitely echoes the book's notions of the way fear of womanhood became socially institutionalized, and how witch-hunting arose as a spontaneous way of ensuring male supremacy. But it also adds its own notes of hope as it hints at how defiance like Jeanne's will resonate down through the ages.
One image to do the work of a thousand
There is, as I mentioned, very little animation in this animated film, but by the end of it I was persuaded this was no defect. It is the by-product of the project having a tiny production budget, but making the most of it. Yamamoto noted in an interview that Japanese audiences were familiar with highly limited animation in the form of "manga movies" and TV productions — e.g., the TV show version of Tezuka's manga Dororo. And before that, he pointed out, Japan had ningyo-joruri, a form of puppet theater where the dolls had inanimate but still expressive faces. The plan was to use animation to indicate moments of extreme passion or emotional significance; when things do move, it has all the more impact.
Even when the film is nothing more than the camera panning across long, static images (a la Japanese painted scrolls), Yamamoto and his cohorts find ways to make those things all the more into storytelling devices. Look at how the scenes unfold left to right with the narration supplying commentary; look at how the content of the imagery changes in accordance with what's being described. It's an old device, but it works here, as it adds to the storybook/fable flavor of the whole. There is no shot that does not have magnificent craft at work. At one point, the animators even add gold leaf to the cels to create a bewitching, sparkling look.
Then there are those few moments of animation that strike like fired bullets. Jeanne's rape is the most notorious of the bunch, and for it to be placed relatively early in the film is a strategy. Like the slicing of the eyeball in the first minute or so of Un Chien Andalou, or the insects swarming under the lawn in the opening scene of Blue Velvet, it's a signal as to how far, and in what direction, the film is prepared to go. I'm not fond of the endurance-test approach to art; if the ultimate arbiter of the quality of something is its "impact", that's a formula for an aesthetic race to the bottom. But savage images like this in Belladonna are matched by many of tenderness and frailty as well, as when Jeanne is seen obliquely in a mirror making a futile effort to clean herself up after the assault. The effect of the film moment-by-moment is for shocks, but its cumulative effect is one of great emotion.
When the movie doesn't work, it's not because it pushes too far; it's in all the moments when it pushes in directions that seem just plain irrelevant. One of the chief aesthetic influences Yamamoto cited for the making of Belladonna was Yellow Submarine, and ironically enough the sequences composed as clear homage to that film seemed the most dated. When the Black Plague shows up, it's in the form of anthropomorphic microbes resembling escapees from a bad educational film of the period. (Maybe they're parodying that?) When Jeanne finally consummates her full union with Satan, there's a flood of parodic, cartoonish, and modern-day Pop Art images that are all but impossible to relate back to the film as a whole. Fun as these things are to watch, they're an indulgence, and I felt they constituted a bigger aesthetic misstep than any of the scenes of brutal sexuality — at least those did have something to do with the story.
I suspect very little about Belladonna, Osamu Tezuka's name value aside, is going to appeal to the broad swath of today's anime fans. But I also suspect that's just because its appeal is selective across the board. It's not just today's anime fans who might have a tough time with something this eccentric and potentially dated; it's everyone. Anime fans are not all the more receptive to experimental filmmaking just by dint of being anime fans; if anything, modern anime fandom all but guarantees their tastes will be all the more mainstream, even if it just happens to be a mainstream from another culture. But within a large enough slice of any audience, there's always a few who want to know what else may be out there, and what unknown directions it might aim in.
My own first experience with Belladonna operated like a test of faith for my own interest in experimental filmmaking. A late-night screening at Otakon, some years back, featured the film but with no English subtitles, no synopsis, nothing but the imagery and the soundtrack. Some were bewildered; some giggled (and were promptly shouted down by one brave woman who actually wanted to watch the damn movie, not heckle it); some, like me, were mesmerized. Even when I didn't understand what exactly was going on, I sensed this was something worth knowing better. Later, I came across the pre-remastered DVD boxset of the film, and felt all the more convinced the movie deserved both a proper release and a defense of its power and eccentricity.
Discussions of projects like this tend to focus on their genesis, or the outré nature of the imagery, or the way the project failed commercially in its time but has since been rediscovered. I've touched on all of those things here, but I wanted to put discussion of the story front-and-center as a way to avoid having it plowed under. Too often, people assume that because a movie is spectacular, it has nothing under the skin (see: REDLINE), and in Belladonna's case the story matters at least as much as the visuals. At the heart of this story is the question, who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? Not Satan, it seems, but Man. If it is up to Woman to set things right, the movie argues, so be it.