Belladonna of Sadness (1973)
Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto
Opens May 6 at the Metrograph
It is impossible to imagine Walt Disney making a sexploitation film; however, in the late 1960s, across the Pacific Ocean, Japan’s Tezuka Osamu, whose influence on Japanese animation—the big eyes, fantastical universes, spiky-haired males, starburst backgrounds, Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion—compares to Disney’s in America, was doing exactly that. At the time the pinku, or pink film, was flourishing in Japan just as sexploitation and nudie-cuties were in the US, and Tezuka and his Mushi Productions began the Animerama Trilogy to capitalize. It began with One Thousand and One Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970), retellings of the famous stories filled out with upskirt shots, raped slaves, animal sex and gratuitous nudity. The US, at least, was not ready: The X-rated One Thousand and One Nights failed, dooming Cleopatra’s hopes of stateside distribution, only for Fritz The Cat, adapted from R. Crumb’s underground cartoon, to become an X-rated animated sensation two years later.
But the most notable of the Animerama trilogy is Belladonna of Sadness (1973), about to be released stateside in a newly restored uncut version. It was, ironically, completed after Tezuka’s departure from his own studio, giving Eiichi Yamamoto, his long-time collaborator and director of the first two installments, more creative control. Taking inspiration from Jules Michelet’s Satanism and Witchcraft and the story of Joan of Arc, Belladonna of Sadness combines the Japanese pink film with more “respectable” Western high art—Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading The People” provides the final and thematically summative image—to deliver a message as progressive as the images are shocking.
It concerns a peasant couple, Jean and Jeanne, who are unable to provide the king with a sufficient mandatory offering to “show his gratitude.” As a result, the king and his subjects rape Jeanne. The film immediately fits into the pinku tradition, then, but the rape is shown impressionistically, not explicitly. A nude Jeanne is showing lying down against a black background, and her body splits open in a burst of blood red, bats flying out from the scene. It stands out not simply because of the technical finesse of the drawings and the vividness of the colors, but because Belladonna of Sadness reserves motion for its most dramatic—and most disturbing—moments.
Certainly the abstract and limited animation owes something to budgetary constraints, as Mushi Productions declared bankruptcy the same year Belladonna was released. But, as is often the case, financial limitations bred innovation. Scenes often consist of a series of still drawings, the camera panning across the unmoving figures and voices, as in the unraveling scroll shots that condense time and shift from one color palate to another. Those that move, by contrast, tend to be in the surreal, abstract and obscene style pioneered by Kuri Yoji and the erotic shunga woodcuts that western viewers will know through the bold black-and-white paintings of Aubrey Beardsley—indeed, much of the film consists of outlines on white space, genitalia and breasts enlarged. But for all the Art Nouveau scenes of maroons and purples, of dark greens and blacks, there are watercolored bursts of pastel, filling in background or character detail and dissolving across a series of images or streaks of orange offering a reprieve from the darkness.
But to reduce Belladonna of Sadness to simply a visual dazzle is a disservice. Its handling of trauma is bold but tactful: the devil revisits and continues to rape Jeanne in a manner that could again be called exploitative, but which also represents a trauma first repressed, then embraced for the alternative societal models it suggests. Jeanne begins to make a decent living for herself in the village, and rumor spreads she is possessed by the devil, as if all successful women must be witches. The repeated claim, along with some foreshadowing invoking Joan of Arc, presents the matriarchal witchcraft model as a welcome alternative to the patriarchal church and king. As one of the final shots exemplifies, it is not the witches that burn, but rather the existing models that collapse, as onlookers watch the way patriarchal religious models clamp women in place. In one memorable sequence, a woman, set against a black background, tells how she and her husband cannot afford to have kids but miss having sex. They turn to Jeanne for a way to be able to have sex without worrying for kids, saying they don’t care that God forbids it. Such women will of course see Jeanne as a martyr rather than a heretic, and so when the film concludes with “Liberty Leading The People,” the revolution being celebrated is one of women’s liberation, and the eroticism reads as empowering rather than exploitative.