Reviewby Gabriella Ekens,
Medieval peasants Jean and Jeanne are idyllic newlyweds. Their happiness vanishes, however, when Jeanne is raped by the local lord in a legally sanctioned deflowering ritual. Afterwards, while the couple tries to resume their life together, Jeanne starts receiving visions from a demon. It comforts her in her sadness, but it also encourages her to act out against the lord. Jeanne resists at first, but as her fortunes continue to wane, she's thrown further into the demon's embrace. As time goes on, Jeanne is drawn into an experience that radically reconfigures her sense of herself, the world, and the course of history itself.
An X-rated anime classic newly remastered for the screen, Belladonna of Sadness is one of animation's premiere psychedelic experiences, brought over to North America for nearly the first time ever in 2016. Its history has already been covered by us before, but here's a quick refresher: Belladonna of Sadness is a legendarily low-budget, sexual, and psychedelic anime film from the 1970s. Poorly received at the time of its release, it accrued a cult audience over the next few decades. Recently, its reputation has been rehabilitated to the point where it's considered an overlooked classic. Still, wider appreciation of the film was hampered by the lack of an English release and poor quality of existing prints. That changed in 2014, when the high-end distribution company Cinelicious chose it as their first candidate for an in-house 4k restoration and re-release. This May, the completed film began screening in theaters across the United States and Canada, and will continue to do so until September. I attended one of these screenings at International House theater in Philadelphia. This was my first time seeing the film, and I left very much impressed by both its artistry and storytelling.
By this point, a good deal has been written about Belladonna of Sadness's production history. At the same time, I've seen relatively little thematic analysis. The film is mostly touted for its mind-blowing visuals and compared to stuff like George Dunning's sensual (but not particularly thoughtful) Yellow Submarine. I think that this sells Belladonna of Sadness short, since its narrative – based on a 19th century book about the feminist history of witchcraft – is geared toward critical analysis as much as entertainment.
Basically, Belladonna of Sadness is a critique of how society subjugates women. It is a radically feminist, anti-establishment film that advocates women leading a class-based revolution. It implicates the Church in this, as a clergyman takes the idyllically newlywed Jean and Jeanne to the lord's castle, where Jeanne is brutally raped in a legally sanctioned jus primae noctis ritual. Afterwards, an emasculated Jean distances himself from Jeanne, and Jeanne starts receiving visits from a devil. This devil, which is shaped like a penis, comes from inside of Jeanne and represents her rage at society, growing more and more as she's mistreated.Phallic symbols are often symbols of agency, and this one indicates Jeanne's increasing willingness to act out. But since she was raised to believe in the system, she doesn't turn against it all at once. It takes a couple of failed rebellions along the way for her anger and misery to allow her to reject society's values entirely.
That's when she accepts the devil's deal. Anticipating an eternity in hell for her “badness,” she instead finds herself in a realm of beauty and pleasure beyond her wildest imaginings. It turns out that Penis Satan (and his association with sexual pleasure and agency) was the good guy all along – hell was a lie made up by the establishment to keep ladies and peasants down. Reborn as a super powerful witch who does not care about the establishment, Jeanne runs medicinal orgies for the peasants. Eventually, she's brought down for her last remaining attachment to the system – her love for her once-kind husband, Jean. Abusing Jeanne's trust, Jean sells her out to the Feudal Lord. As Jeanne burns at the stake, Jean dies of remorse. Afterward, Jeanne is martyred. The women around the pyre inherit her spark and pass it down until it causes the French Revolution. The movie's thesis is that women should respond to their subjugation by ignoring traditional values, inspiring one another, and taking down feudalism.
It's been rumored that this film inspired Revolutionary Girl Utena's director, Kunihiko Ikuhara, to work in animation, which seems totally plausible after viewing the film. The main difference between Utena and Belladonna is that Utena places more emphasis on relationships between women. So if you like anime that takes a hard look at class and gender, Belladonna of Sadness is a must-see.
Fair warning, though – it's not an exaggeration that this film is touted as ultra-sexual. I'd say most of the film's runtime is made up of sex scenes, some of them violent and disturbing. It literally opens with a rape. These scenes are appropriate to the story, and the scenes are gorgeous in their artistry, but they are unpleasant. Otherwise, the sexual imagery is largely abstract. Flowers become vaginas, figures in cloaks become disembodied penises, and Jeanne's rape is depicted as her being bisected from the groin upwards. Some psychedelic sequences also contain intense strobe lighting, so epileptics be warned.
As for the visuals themselves, expect watercolors, morphing lineart, and little in terms of actual animation. There are no lush Kyoto Animation frame counts here. Much of the film's motion consists of pans and zooms across static illustrations. There aren't even any lip flaps. The studio went under while making this film, so this was a method of cutting costs. However, the results are memorable and even contribute to the film's power. (There's a great analysis to be written about its use of vertical versus horizontal space.) Despite these limitations, Belladonna of Sadness is, on a purely aesthetic level, almost unbelievably beautiful. I'd hang any given frame of it up on my wall. Even if you don't care about it's message, this film is still worth watching as a work of altered-state eroticism.
Overall, viewers who can handle the content will probably be entertained by this gorgeous and trippy movie. However, I especially recommend Belladonna of Sadness to anyone interested in the history of anime. It's possible that without this film, Kunihiko Ikuhara – the most brazen auteur working in anime today – might never have turned to animation. It features work by legendary animators, like Gisaburo Sugii and Osamu Dezaki. Cinelicious did a fantastic job with the restoration. Using the original stock, the picture was significantly sharpened, and the bright whites, which had decayed into a greyish blue, were restored. It looks far better than any other version out there. The theaters showing it tend to be arthouse joints that really care about presentation, and my screening even came with an introductory lecture on the film.
Belladonna of Sadness is the culmination of a rare attempt to make blatantly un-commercial, artistically challenging anime. At the cost of bankruptcy, Mushi Productions made a masterpiece that wouldn't be fully appreciated for forty years. Now hindsight allows us to see the breadth of its influence and depth of its daring. Get in on this experience while you have the chance.
Overall : A
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Powerful narrative about subjugation according to sex and class, one of the most gorgeously unconventional anime ever made, painstakingly remastered to look better than it ever has before
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