A TALE OF VIOLENCE, LUST AND REVENGE THAT FLOATS TO THE STRAINS OF INTOXICATING JAZZ MUSIC, IN A PSYCHEDELIC SWIRL OF BRIGHT COLOURS, TREMBLING BACKGROUNDS AND DEMONIC FIGURES.
Directed by Eichii Yamamoto (who also directed “Astro Boy”) and produced by Mushi Production in 1973, the erotic anime “Belladonna of Sadness” (in Japanese “Kanashimi no Belladonna”) is set in a fictional Middle Ages period and its opening is bright: Jean and Jeanne, a couple of innocent and respectable, “smiled upon by God” peasants get married, soaked in a cotton-candy palette of luminous watercolors, surrounded by divine light and a festive air. But when they go to the head of the village’s palace to have his blessing, at only two minutes from the beginning, the situation falls into ruin. The mellifluous voice that had chronicled the bright scenes depicting the couple’s marriage turns into a tense jazz melody that emphasises the brutality of the following scene. Poor Jean is, in fact, driven away from the palace and, once the drawbridge is closed, the head of the village, along with the other peasants, violates Jeanne in a nightmarish orgy – represented by a blood stream that tears Jeanne’s body apart and dissolves in the form of a flock of bats. After the initial trauma that turns her into the shadow of herself, Jeanne makes a pact with Satan, depicted as a tiny phallic-shaped creature cryptically tells her “I am you” and says it will grow as much as Jeanne increase her own power.
Jeanne’s corruption has begun. Her transformation from an enchanting and ethereal creature, an emblem of purity, into a lustful and sensual witch thirsty for revenge who turns her body into a weapon against the abuse of powerful people is in the making. What follows is an infernal spiral of consumption, lust, violence and absurdity, a descent toward the limit of perversion, an abyss that will mark the end of Jeanne.
The main inspiration behind the story of Belladonna is a book dated 1862, “Satanism and Witchcraft” by French author Jules Michelet, one of the first volumes to speak of witchcraft not necessarily as an evil sect, but rather as a secret religion opposed to the rules of the Catholic Church, carried out by women and marked by the use of herbs and plants for healing purposes, but Yamamoto also had in mind the tragic story of Joan of Arc, of which it offers an interesting, surreal reinterpretation. It’s also no coincidence that the title echoes the name of the belladonna, known since the Middle Ages as “the plant of the witches”, used to cook lethal poisons and feared for its hallucinatory effects which resulted in spasmodic laughter, feeling of levitation, and erotic hallucinations. The link between feminine beauty and the perception of its evil and lustful nature is palpable and runs through the whole movie.
Third of an erotic trilogy that took the name of Animerama, along with “The Thousand and One Nights” and “Cleopatra”, a project strongly wanted by Osamu Tezuka, head of Mushi Productions, “Belladonna of Sadness” came at a crucial time in Japanese history: in the early 70s, in fact, the same sexual liberation movement that was sweeping America and Europe spread through the country, and women began to march on the streets of Tokyo claiming out loud for their rights.
The film was presented at the 23rd Berlinale, but, it was a total failure, and at the end of that year Mushi was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Back on the markets in a restored version last year, the film is now considered a fundamental paragraph in animation history, both for the beauty of the images and for its (anti)heroine, by many risen to feminist emblem for her freedom in pleasing all her carnal desires.
“Belladonna of Sadness” is imbued with references to painting, from Klimt to Degas and Kandinsky, that peek out from the often static tables (cross only by the camera moving on the surface), which makes it often closer to a painting than to an anime. In an intoxicating mix of grotesque, erotic, harsh scenes and a refined illustration, so light and elegant, what makes “Belladonna of Sadness” so unique is exactly the alienating contrast between the nightmarish actions and the charm of the scenes, a contrast that makes us holding on to the screen.
Text by Francesca Milano