Following the death of pioneering director Eiichi Yamamoto, Nick and Nicky revisit his psychedelic film Belladonna of Sadness, an incomparable piece of art confronting misogyny, classism, and sexual liberation.
Disclaimer:The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
CONTENT WARNING: This column includes discussion of sexual assault and features erotic artistic images that includes nudity, phallic, and yonic imagery. This column is NSFW.
Correction: Nippon Herald films distributed both Yellow Submarine and Belladonna of Sadness. A previous version of this article stated that Mushi Pro animated Yellow Submarine. That error is now corrected.
Well Nicky, I just spent another week in the Preview Guide mines and by god I need something to make me feel alive again. I need something artistic, ambitious. Something that will remind me why I love anime as an art form so much to begin with!
Yeah, nothing to make you remember the validity of animation as an artform than a weird film The 70's™️. In honor of director Eiichi Yamamoto's passing, today we're daring everyone to watch his tragic, erotic, and bizarre cult masterpiece Belladonna of Sadness.
Full stop, Belladonna is one of my all-time favorite anime films, and anime in general. It's a weird, trippy, psychosexual fever dream that infamously had a majorly troubled production that mixes bouts of stunning animation with stretches of borderline animatics. It has one of the grooviest soundtracks in anime history. It comes with roughly 1,400 different content warnings including on-screen rape, torture, graphic violence, and whatever the hell you call a rabbit popping out of a man's anus.
It rules, is what I'm saying.
It's certainly got everything. It's hard to imagine that this is what came out of the last gasp of Mushi Pro if you know all about the shit they had to go through before collapsing completely. Even if you don't like this film (that I also adore), you have to acknowledge what it means for anime history. It's got a lot of great hands on it. This movie first premiered at the 23rd Berlin International Film Festival in 1973. It was originally distributed by Nippon Herald Films after the splash made by another arthouse animated film Yellow Submarine, but never reached a wide-level of release or praise cuz that's what happens when you're too cool for the times. Now, It's since been picked up by Cinelicious Pics and you can find it on multiple platforms.
It's also a loose sorta-adaptation of the 19th century book La Sorcière, itself radically ahead of its time. It's a re-examination of the purported history of witchcraft that positioned witches as an anti-feudalist reclamation of pre-Christian practices that actively subverted the power of church and nobility. AND it's allegedly one of the works that inspired Kunihiko Ikuhara back in the day, so the film has its reach in the past, present, and future.
It also has a ton of influences from other cool western fine art movements like Gustav Klimt and the like. Kuni Fukai handled the art direction and many of the films most gorgeous illustrations. It's a little inaccurate to describe many of the weird eclectic images in Belladonna of Sadness as "animated" per say, but in the same way it's not really a film you watch with your eyes. You sit down and just experience the fable of a lowly peasant girl trying to thrive in a patriarchal society that's out to get her and all the sound and fury that comes with it.
Yeah, like I said, there's long stretches of what are basically animatics, which are themselves radically inconsistent in style and quality. Sometimes you get a gorgeous, static tableau or an impressionistic piece that communicates a deeper emotion. Other times you get this:
But if you're open to letting the film as a whole take you in, you're in for a wild, incredibly unique time.
We open on a song and montage of Jeanne and her husband Jean's beautiful and happy wedding. Which seems to last all of thirty seconds before things to go shit because no one is allowed to be happy in medieval Europe.
There are many reasons why this vague time in history is considered the worst time in human memory to live in, but chief among them was the people in charge. Can't pay your exorbitant wedding taxes? Well then time for everyone in court to violate the newlywed for the hell of it.
Jeanne, previously a good-hearted and virginal bride, gets her body and spirit tarnished in a way that is graphically blood-filled and horrifying. But, It doesn't linger too long on these traumatic moments and it's the first example of how Belladonna uses abstractions to display its mature themes without feeling too exploitative of Jeanne's humanity.
It's still fuckin visceral, though. Like that abstraction helps ensure the scene isn't leering the way some rape scenes can be, but it also makes the visuals themselves all the more effective for it.
We get to feel the full anguish of Jeanne's experience in a way that makes it clear that she's the victim in a bad system. Her husband is notably a powerless wimp who can't even emotionally support her when she returns home wounded and dejected. Instead he attempts to choke her before running off, leaving her to pick up the pieces for herself.
Jean is a reallllllll piece of work, yeah. In a situation where you'd think he'd want to comfort his beloved, all he can do is take out his emasculated rage on her. Really, he's just asking to be replaced by the Penis Devil.
Jeanne's husband is too tired to be of any use and might even work himself to death, and that leaves both of them in a bind. No one else is willing to help or protect them against the injustices of this world.
What choice does she have but to gain the power to help herself? By whatever means possible.
And who should come along to offer that power? Why none other than
Could it be SATAN
And Satan himself is perhaps the most fascinating part of Belladonna's thesis statement here. His portrayal shifts and morphs based on Jeanne's own mental space, becoming larger, more imposing, more threatening, and demanding as her own desperation grows. But also he starts out as a tiny phallic metaphor who likes climbing on tiddy.
He could be interpreted a few ways other than just a little dick monster who likes to cause trouble, in Freudian terms. I read it as a way of Jeanne accepting her own id and therefore, her sexual desire, something she was afraid to encounter until now. By discarding her notions of purity about herself she's able to become a more confident and fulfilled person who can raise herself and her husband out of poverty with her own body and merits.
Even that is only a temporary measure. Because when you're in a pernicious and arbitrary system controlled by a capricious ruling class, your success or failure is only marginally in your own hands. So one day you're the Lord's favorite lap dog:
And the next you are quite literally disarmed:
So Jeanne once again makes another deal in an attempt to make up for her husband's failures, the country goes to war but Jeanne is able to gain respect of the remaining women in the village as a prosperous figure after getting a loan and becoming a moneylender. This makes the lord's wife horribly jealous.
And just like now, people in the 1300s hate to see a girlboss succeeding.
And again, it's a situation where the working class are only allowed to thrive so long as it doesn't endanger the egos or perceived power of the nobility. Even when you're playing the game well, it's rigged against you.
It's also only sustained for so long because all the men, meaning the patriarchy that enforces the rules, are out to lunch. Once they return, Jeanne is attacked by the lady's page and she is chased and stripped of her power once again.
And in this moment of need, Jean heroically hides in the house and holds the door closed so she can't get in. Really winning that "Husband Of The Year" coffee mug.
I joke, but I do think it's crucial that even the one person who SHOULD hold Jeanne dearest still capitulates and betrays her in service of maintaining his own position in the hierarchy. The idyllic, "drunk on love" couple has been turned into a shadow of themselves by those evils enacted upon them.
Jeanne crawls away, away from society at large, humanity. She runs so far she ends up in the wilderness, alone. Or is she?
Yep, good old Dickhead McMorningstar is there with a full soul-buying proposal. And he's discovered Luciferian Viagra in the meantime.
The devil then looks Jeanne in her 70's porno eyelashes and tells her what makes him so horny for her is her crushing despair. Having all but given up, she consents to give everything to him, forfeiting her last remaining shred of dignity and humanity.
And then the movie pops off. Like the preceding act had some strong moments and interesting themes, but from here on the film just takes off the training wheels and drops a bucket of LSD over your face, while also punching said face with its ultimate message:
And it doesn't stop there, you can really tell they saved all the best animation for the important moments. The Black Plague ravages the country like an oozing black flood of death and decay. A man left for dead ends up dumped into Jeanne's neck of the woods and she uses a poisonous flower to cure him.
When I first watched this movie, I remember that sequence of the Black Death sticking in my brain, and on rewatch it's still one of my favorite sequences of animation. Combined with the acid rock music it managed to condense the hellacious terror of the bubonic plague in a way you never could with words.
It's fucking sick as hell is what it is. Eventually all the other townsfolk hear about what happened to that one dude and they all start heading over to Jeanne's abode to throw massive parties, even going as far as bringing their own food and drinks.
Which is pretty accurate to what happened in the actual Black Death pandemic. People kinda went fucking crazy for a generation or so and the sheer impact of watching a quarter of your entire world die horribly drove people to a lot of weird outlets. Instead of The Flagellants, everyone here just gets horny as hell. And this is where the movie really puts the psycho in psychosexual.
Don't ask me what that last one is a metaphor for.
Also Jeanne has this cool outfit and then does a mesmerizing dance. Meanwhile the Lord is Not Happy with the stories of Jeanne's wild parties and nothing pisses them off more than their once god-fearing subjects actually enjoying themselves.
Again, it ties back to La Sorcière and its depiction of witchcraft as an inherent protest against the powers that be. Especially in the context of the Black Plague where the church and nobility either failed or outright abandoned the masses because they were powerless to prevent it. The many folk practices and remedies that were deemed witchcraft were vilified ultimately because they were means of support—even if not necessarily effective—that made people less reliant on the other 2 of the 3 estates.
Outside of the historical setting of the film, it's also in line with the politics of the time the film's production. Japan was going through their own uproars, people were protesting, feminism was entering a boom, and people were re-evaluating the nature of a society that wants you to be unhappy in order to keep serving it. As Belladonna, Jeanne teaches the people how to have freedom and celebration in spite of the overwhelming face of despair wreaked upon them by war, plague, and generally miserable quality of life afforded by peasants. They become one with Jeanne but also nature.
And while we're at it: fuck classism. Literally.
So this fellow, the Baroness's page, here has the hots for her and is absolutely desperate, and so Jeanne offers him an aphrodisiac to help him do the deed. Unfortunately, they're quickly discovered by the lady's husband and meet an untimely end.
Then having been targeted by Jeanne in his own house the Baron decides to pull out the big guns: her stupid husband Jean.
Going back to the page for a moment, I really love that reveal. Like the movie's made use of silence and stillness several times before, so when it pauses for a considerable moment on this shot, you think it's maybe making a point about the two finding peace in a new relationship. Or they're just orgasming. One or both.
Then it zooms out to silently reveal that dagger, before panning up to show Lord Bonehead in all his grumpy glory. It's just a sublime little bit of quietness in a 3rd act filled with sound and madness.
It's chilling, it's a good example of how even the movie's more "limited" elements are still really powerful with just having great and carefully placed.
But yeah, Jean shows up and essentially tries to convince Jeanne to start sharing her remedies and magic with the nobles. Y'know, to uh, help spread them to everyone and definitely not horde that power as their own. For sure. That's how it'll work, right?
Jeanne also has some very beautiful-looking coitus with her piece of shit husband. I may not know what she still sees with him. But it's a very lovingly animated sequence. Probably one of my favorite in the whole film. It sells a bittersweet quality to their love even though his actions are going to ruin everything for her.
It's really gorgeous, and without words communicates that even with everything that's happened, there's still some glimmer of that love they started with. And after have some apparently real nice sex, Jeanne walks into the castle and tells the king to go fuck himself—and not in the fun way.
For refusing to back down and submit, Jeanne is punished to burn at the stake. At first her husband won't even look at her out of shame, but eventually he becomes outraged and retaliates, leading to his death. This in turn angers the townspeople. Jeanne, our Belladonna, transforms from simply a dangerous and beautiful woman to the martyr, Jeanne D'Arc. As she burns she becomes a symbol of hope inside the hearts of every woman who longs for freedom.
Gotta say, if the baron didn't want to turn her into a martyr he probably should have chosen a different shaped stake to burn her on.
There's literally a priest who hangs over his shoulder the entire movie, you'd think that guy would have noticed the mixed metaphor there.
We close on a shot of Eugène Delacroix's famous depiction of Liberty Leading the People, an inspiring message and reminder to everyone to free yourself like you free your party boob.
Yeah the movie does end a bit abruptly—and bluntly. The message of Jeanne's martyrdom influencing the women who witnessed it to pursue liberation is strong enough on its own, but just to make sure you get the point it directly mentions the role of women in the French Revolution.
I believe this part in particular was a later edition added with a re-edit in order to appeal to a larger female audience that never got released into theaters. I find it a bit on-the-nose, but it's not a bad way to go.
I'd believe it, since it feels like the creators stepping out on stage and directly telling you how to interpret a movie already pretty up front with its themes. But hey, that's a petty niggle about what is otherwise a ridiculously unique and powerful piece of animation history.
It's like nothing else. And I actually have quite a lot of fun whenever I'm watching it. It's a short burst of colorful and thematically strong filmmaking that never settles to be dull. We watch Jeanne rise from being powerless to powerful by her own will in a way that inspires others to do the same.
It's a remarkably unique creation that even almost 50 years later still holds a visceral power in both message and art. Now more than ever, we need raw and expressive art that tells us the important things, like how Satanism makes you incredibly sexy.
Maybe Satan just has a ridiculously good brand of mascara he wants to sell but whatever it is, it's working. I really hope everyone tries to experience this film at least once for the extreme novelty of it.
It can be an ask for folks to try out old movies in the age of streaming, but just remember there's always time to stop and smell the roses.
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