Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Voice Stars: Aiko Nagayama, Tatsuya Nakadai, Katsuyuki Itô
The death of Eiichi Yamamoto earlier this week barely registered as news here in the UK. That’s something of a shame. A pioneer in Japanese animation, his work through the decades innovated and inspired a generation of his fellows to put pen to paper, creating all manner of imaginative worlds. Yamamoto himself is remembered for such key titles as the TV movie Astro Boy (1964), his sexually charged version of A Thousand and One Nights (1969) and – perhaps his masterpiece – the psychedelic odyssey of 1973’s Belladonna of Sadness.
Finished and released in ’73 but conceptualised much earlier, Belladonna presents a retelling of Jules Michelet’s “La Sorcière”; a 19th century compendium of tales on the subject of Satanism and witchcraft. Rendered mostly in line-drawn inks and water colours, the film tells the tale of Jean (Katsuyuki Itô) and Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama); a peasant couple who become dominant figures in their modest village when Jeanne becomes entangled in a quasi-consensual coupling with the Devil (Tatsuya Nakadai), who manifests following her rape by the local Baron on the night of her wedding to Jean.
Said sexual violence is rendered impressionistically, with the screen flooding red as line drawings undulate and thrust. It is as troubling as any depiction of rape on screen, though must surely be considered as one of the most creatively realised. Afterward, time is given to Jeanne’s recovery. Her emotional collapse is rendered with a level of empathy not often seen in Japanese rape cinema of the time (and there was plenty – see the works of Teruo Ishii and Akio Jissôji), where the act was often used as a method of showing sadistic punishment. Satan’s subsequent advances on her, therefore, occur during a weakened state. Her defenses are low.
Nevertheless, the couple both fleetingly come to enjoy new levels of power in their community, becoming moneylenders who are feared among their peers. When the Bubonic plague courses through town, Jeanne has powers to cure it, granting her further favour, much to the Baron’s chagrin. His enmity ultimately leads to tragedy. Jeanne is burned as a witch though, as Satan has her soul, her spirit remains to ‘infect’ and inspire women and germinate the French Revolution.
The Francophilia on display throughout Belladonna is quite potent, and speaks to the flood of Western (and particularly European) culture making waves in Japan in the late ’60s and beyond. Jeanne’s perma-nude Bardo-esque design is hard to disregard, while the film formally tilts to the experimental verve of the French New Wave, with the influence of Godard particularly shining through in certain shots, transitions and edits. The music very much pushes into the acid-tinged psychedelia of the recent past, splicing such flavours with the heady sexual lounge moods of Serge Gainsbourg.
Japan’s embrace of Swinging London also comes to the fore once Jeanne has copulated with the Devil; an orgasm that explodes the screen with colour and imagery redolent of The Beatles’ acid-trip cartoon Yellow Submarine. It is here that Belladonna reaches its saturated zenith. As a result of these potent influences, the film feels ever-so slightly out of time; many of these zeitgeist touchstones having passed their apex by ’73. That’s fitting with the overall sense of a piece of art that stands separate from its surroundings; a genuine original that feels beamed from another place entirely, especially now that we’re nearly 50 years removed from it’s original release.
Depictions of Satanic bestiality would become synonymous with the darker realms of hentai over the years, with the likes of Legend of the Overfiend becoming particularly infamous in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and the darker urges both behind and sated by these explicit films open up longer, thornier conversations than I’m looking to wade into here. For it’s part, I would say, Belladonna of Sadness embraces many elements of the liberal sex-positive ethos that Japan was witnessing overseas. In the broader strokes of the story, Jeanne finds new confidence in her sexuality following her copulation with the Devil. This is in stark contrast to her rape at the hands of the Baron, whose very human evils on her body are rendered, as noted, as more degrading and belittling. Her supernatural encounter, on the other hand, emboldens her and encourages a kind of rediscovery of her own sexual power (albeit with a little help).
This coalition with Satan isn’t as redundantly didactic as a good vs evil paradigm. Belladonna isn’t so reactionary, isn’t so binary. While undoubtedly Jeanne’s entwining with Satan leads her onto the path of her tragic fate, said fate is ultimately at the hands of the envious and prideful Baron and the ignorant jeering townsfolk who follow his lead blindly. Jeanne’s seduction and comingling with Satan nets her an improved quality of life until the meddlesome acts of men bring about her end. By contrast, even her love Jean is wrought low, falling foul of alcoholism and the frailties of mortality. Belladonna of Sadness aligns itself with the idea that humanity is the primary engineer of its own downfall and misery, and that the meddling of supernatural and metaphysical forces – while contributory in this fantasy world – are not the sole cause of the same, and often it is our own prejudices and blindness that create injustices, particularly against women.
I’d like to think of myself as an optimistic misanthrope; weary of how flawed we are as a species, but cautiously hopefully that we’re making small, incremental wins against this. The world at large does its best to break this nominal optimism down, granted, but the battle’s not over. Still, Belladonna of Sadness appeals to my inner misanthropist. It is a tale of tragedy, after all. But that’s not why I love it.
I love this movie because of Yamamoto’s vivid, delirious method of delivery. For a significant amount of the time this materialises as still images that we scroll over (indicative of Japan’s own artistic heritage, mixing sensibilities of East and West). More often than not, the frame is left sparse, evoking a blank canvass onto which this eye-popping story has been conjured into being. Itself a kind of incantation. When movement does occur, it is with impressive fluidity, which folds into the inherent eroticism. The moving drawings swirl like liquid, the water colours add to this sense of ethereal ‘wetness’, while vaginal and phallic imagery are exhibited throughout the picture’s many erogenous hotspots.
Japanese cinema at this time was becoming ferociously explicit, keenly as part of an effort to compete with television, which was sucking at the cinema’s prior supremacy. Offering gratuity, the wide-range of pictures produced vary from revolutionary arthouse masterpieces to the lowest of grindhouse opportunism. Belladonna of Sadness swirls in the higher atmosphere of the former camp even as it coquettishly placates the base desires of the latter. It is one of the most beautiful, psychedelic and erotic films ever made, steeped in kinkiness and a rascal’s sympathy for the devil. Like Eiichi Yamamoto himself, it is simply one of a kind.