Title: Belladonna of Sadness / Kanashimi no Belladonna
Length: 1 x 86 minute movie
Genre: Drama, hentai, horror, musical
Year of release: 1973
I’m not entirely sure what was happening at the end of the 1960s, but Osamu Tezuka, dubbed ‘the father of manga’, decided to direct the Animerama trilogy; a trio of pornographic anime flicks based on classic literature. This began with a comically lusty reimagining of One Thousand and One Nights, and was followed up by a raunchy story of Cleopatra. For their final work, the crew decided to move to the middle ages, Europe, to depict a story of witchcraft. Tezuka, however, sat out of this one, hanging up both the writing and directing hat. The rest of Mushi Productions put their all into Belladonna of Sadness, working on it for 6 years, and hoping its international appeal would save them from bankruptcy. While it did not, this movie is one of the most interesting additions to any movie-goers archives, because it was truly… something. And it’s something that will never be made again.
Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the movie is the musicality. Yes, it’s a musical. To say there’s singing and dancing would be a fallacy, because the animation, which is mostly pans across stills inspired by classic western art, does not allow such fluidity. Jeanne and Jean sing their opening song, a cheesy, pulpy song about their upcoming marriage, and it’s the last time the film even attempts to evoke such an easy emotion. It quickly becomes a horror.
To be granted permission to marry, Jean must pay a hefty tax. In his inability to pay it, the lord instead demands Jeanne’s body, and allows his men to brutally rape her. There’s a hentai tag on this movie, but this is not where that tag is earned; this scene fuels nightmares, using evil metaphors to delve into Jeanne’s psychotic breakdown. I cannot erase the image of her naked body being split in two down the middle, as unsettling, fast cuts show us the vultures picking away at her body.
Beaten and bruised, Jeanne returns to Jean, who can no longer look at her. This movie has already gone to depths that few horror films can, and then it digs deeper, taking her only external salvation away. The only respite Jeanne can have is in her body, as she breaks the forbidden taboo and masturbates, thus accepting the devil into her life. From here on, Jeanne has a newfound sense of personal agency. Chin-up, she refuses to let the world keep her down. She takes command of her partner’s finances and begins to buy-and-sell until he is a lord. As Jean is drafted to war, she takes over the estate, and becomes an oddly empowered woman in a time where such a thing is disallowed, and she only becomes more economically powerful. But does she ever find happiness?
Belladonna of Sadness chisels away at a feministically empowering message. The ‘devil’ that Jeanne accepts into herself is her own sexuality, and once taken control of, she goes on to free others. Her estate, rife with sexually liberated peasants, becomes immune to the plague, and she is soon seen as a witch. Her evil, then, is not so evil, and even as she is eventually chased out of her power, the movie asks you to see her in a sympathetic light. She was once raped, but now she is strong, and can face death knowing that she was right to find pleasure in pleasuring herself. But… does she find happiness?
It’s a difficult message to accept, but a powerful one. It’s also bizarrely placed, as the imagery, while beautiful, does not refrain from basal titillation. Jeanne’s tits are regularly on full display, and the middle sequence, a symbolic reimagining of her estate’s orgy, begins to give the movie a tone it can’t quite handle. Even as the epilogue shows us ‘the power of women’ in future wars, it’s hard to stomach. The message did not ‘come out of nowhere’, but it did get lost amongst the atrocities, and never giving Jeanne a chance at happiness, instead focusing in on the perversions that her broken state allows. Belladonna of Sadness is a movie that has its cake – and eats it, too.
Attempt at commentary aside, Belladonna of Sadness earns a firm recommendation to any fan of symbolic imagery. The animation is admittedly a glorified slideshow, but the art itself is unlike anything you have seen from Japanese anime. Jeanne’s psychosis at the beginning of the movie is emotionally devastating on the back of her pained, vacant expressions, and unforgettable, truly distressing metaphors. The narrative is undercut by its own desires, and the message is unconvincing, but this little piece of history is worth experiencing at least once.