The beautiful peasant woman Jeanne is raped by a demonic overlord on her wedding night. Spurned by her husband, she has no outlet for her awakened libido, which develops to give her powers of witchcraft.
Kanashimi no Belladonna was inspired by the 1862 book La Sorcière (Satanism and Witchcraft) by French historian Jules Michelet. It is the third and final film in the Animerama trilogy conceived by Osamu Tezuka, but it is the only one to be neither written nor directed by him.
My city's only arthouse theater decided to play this 1973 anime movie recently. I went with a couple buddies and it was...an experience. I will now try explain my mixed feelings on this rather unique film.
This movie is sometimes called "the lost Tezuka masterpiece" although Osamu Tezuka actually left the project quite early in production. Kanashimi no Belladonna or "Belladonna of Sadness" was written and directed by Tezuka's longtime friend and collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto. Yamamoto worked with Tezuka on Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, as well as writing Space Battleship Yamato, the first Space Opera anime.
Belladonna of Sadness is an X-rated
avant garde telling of a Faustian melodrama set in medieval France. The anime is loosely based on a 19th century non-fiction book called "Satanism and Witchcraft" that posits that ritual witchcraft and Wicca were created to rebel against the patriarchal rule of the Church and Monarchy. The book also prominently featured erotic art by a French artist who went by the pseudonym Martin van Maële. The anime follows the book's example by having a LOT of trippy, psychedelic eroticism that frankly detracts more often than it adds to the film.
A poor farming couple named Jean and Jeanne are married in medieval France. However, they can't afford to pay the outrageously high "wedding tax" of their feudal lord, so the lord demands the right to gangbang Jeanne with his friends on her wedding night. As an aside, this practice was called "Droit du seigneur" and was alleged to have happened in real medieval France, although no hard evidence can be found and many historians believe it was a myth created hundreds of years later. Jeanne is emotionally devastated and her distress summons the Devil, who offers her power and revenge in exchange for her soul. Jeanne agrees at first to give the Devil her body, but not her soul. Satan accepts the offer after some truly bizarre sex and Jeanne gains the ability to spin beautiful fabric.
Jeanne is able to make enough money with her fabric to pay their lord's outrageous tax, so he makes her husband his official tax collector. However, this increase in wealth and power does nothing to improve their happiness. Jean isn't able to collect enough taxes from the peasants, so the lord cuts off his hand. Jean then becomes a miserable drunk. Jeanne is able to use her new gained powers to bewitch a greedy moneylender into giving her a large sum. She is able to give the evil lord the money he demands, but the evil lord's wife is jealous of Jeanne and plots revenge. The countess's Page slashes Jeanne's dress and the townsfolk all immediately decide to try rape her. Jean locks her out of the house and watches while the whole town rapes his wife! After Jean collected his award for "Cuck of the Year", Jeanne gets thrown in the dungeon to rot. She escapes the dungeon with the help of Satan and after reaching her breaking point, she finally agrees to give him her soul in exchange for revenge.
A plague ravages the town and many are killed. Jeanne returns to the town looking beautiful and offers a magical cure for the disease. She convinces the townspeople to rebel against the evil feudal lord and God. Jeanne even gets revenge on the Countess by charming her page into sleeping with the Countess and getting them both murdered by the lord. The lord offers to give her land and power, but she rejects these offers and says she wants "everything". The lord then has her burned at the stake in a scene reminiscent of French heroine Joan d'Arc. The worthless husband Jean finally rises against the lord, but is killed by his soldiers. The rest of the townsfolk cower in fear and Jeanne's rebellion is crushed at least for now. The story ends with French women leading the March on Versailles and stating that in France it is the women that lead revolutions. The End.
You will immediately notice that the art is NOTHING like most anime. The art in this 1973 anime actually seems to be inspired by 1960s European cartoons like Yellow Submarine from the UK and Bremen Town Musicians from the USSR. Eiichi Yamamoto is the one guy that left the theater after watching those movies and said, "This would be WAY better if everyone started fucking!" The animation is quite good for its time though and the surreal art can be quite impressive at points.
The music is often chaotic Bebop jazz. This unfortunately reminds me of Kite, the only other anime with wild saxophone solos while people bang. Occasionally though an ocarina will play accompanied by guitar and reminds me a LOT of the theme "Lonely Shepard" from Kill Bill. I spent at least 1/4th of this movie expecting a Tarantino bloodbath to occur at any minute.
While this movie certainly had strengths like strong animation, a solid soundtrack, and a unique premise...it falls a bit short of being a masterpiece in my opinion. The trippy sex scenes generally seemed like a desperate grab for attention instead of adding to the themes of the story. If this was a minor detail I would let it slide, but they take up around half the entire movie! If you want an elitist arthouse anime with tons of porno that will kick Europeans right in the childhood...this is your anime.
And the award to the most underrated anime of all time goes to a movie produced and realised in 1973, as part of a trilogy by the Manga God, Osuma Tezuka, who leave the proyect. Kanashimi no Belladoona is amovie that the 99,9% of the anime fandom never heard any about. It's really difficut to found it on internet, and that's without subtitles.
But it's a shame. Anime creators like Kuhiko Ikuhara, Utena and Penguindrum's creator, has admitted the influence of this movie. So, why is this film so unknown?
First of all, it's not a typical movie. It's an avant-garde movie, something you will notice just
saying the animation and art style. Forget the formula big eyes, small nose, the charecters are drawn here in a more european look-alike. The colors maybe brillaint and vivid in some scenes, or depressing in others, following the story and the sensations the movie show. The story takes place in the Middle Ages, in France, and the historical portrait is really accurate.
It's the story of Jeanne, a young woman who got the bad luck to born female and poor, and how she gets power, while the lords call her a witch, show us the oppressing situation that women has to live in that era. Searching for freedom and power, Jeanne become more and more an outcast fom the society that mistreat her, and build up aimge of a powerful, terryfing woman, a witch. The social criticize is just brillaint.
Yeah, there's sex in this story. We see an evolution, since the sex as weapon to oppress people that the Milord uses, til the sex as a way to break free, gain power or joint a soulmate.
With or without sex, Kanshimi no Belladonna is a movie that deserves more recognocition for explore themes as feminism, social hipocrisy, the use of religion as a way to oppress the population, and other ways too, and sexuality.
A corrupted woman is soaked in sin and gradually torn from her soul. Her purity that was once unscathed is now an unbounded commodity. Piece by piece, she is dismantled until the only thing that’s left is skin and blood. From the ashes of unadulterated youth, now rises something else. The transformation from beauty to grotesque is immediate. A woman is either a maiden or a witch. A sin or a sinner. An unknowing victim or an unholy perpetrator. The existence of both is morally reprehensible. Here we have the scripture of ye old storytelling embedded in every culture, every time, and in every form.
every artifice, every duality inherits a line that exists to challenge it. A tempo-spatial blip where white melds into the black – where Angels mingle with Demons, where grotesqueness is beauty, where tragedy births empowerment, where witches ARE women – explodes with a forgotten force. That coalescing blip takes form in Belladonna of Sadness (Kanashimi no Belladonna): a powerful visual enigma that mesmerizes with bizarre aestheticism and erotic storytelling (one that many will probably write off as a “deep” hentai and in the process, dismiss the work so passionately fueled by the revolutionary spirit that drives all provocative art).
Belladonna is the third and final installment in the Animerama series (adult-themed films) conceptualized by Osamu Tezuka, but due to his early abandonment of the project, it was sought through (in 1973) by Eiichi Yamamoto and produced by Mushi Production. Adapted loosely from the non-fictional musings of La Sorcière by Jules Michelet, Belladonna follows the vicious downfall of a young girl named Jeanne, and thus, her metamorphosis. Even though Belladonna takes influence from Michelet’s book, it is not a literal re-telling. The novelty of Michelet’s work, however, should be noted. La Sorciere attempted to trace the rebellions against feudalism and Medieval practices that subjugated women and peasants. Riddled with folklore, fairy tales, and religious theory, the book opened a new sympathetic vision towards the oppressed, and what eventually manifested into “witchcraft”. Belladonna is a tale about oppression, but also about revolution. What starts off as a fatalistic chain of events steeped in sexual violence and tradition, morphs into a darkly, disturbing tale of empowerment (featuring Satan symbolized as an ever-growing penis, lots and lots of other phallic imagery, and intense psychedelics visuals).
The aesthetical direction in Belladonna is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Sequences of stylistically-independent paintings that are tied by motion. Styles include Klimt-influenced artworks where the female body is the everlasting focus. The only place where precision in detail matters is on Jeanne, and partly her husband and abusers. Following in the symbolist tradition, many displayed elements of Decadence. These paintings were full of lurid, exploitative objects that were flourishing with mystical context. Decadent art called for transgression and taboo, through dreamlike visual poetics. Belladonna adapts this with acuity. Abstract, expressionistic paintings also take a hold here. The use of placement, distance, object and how they come alive, both with color and shape all reveal this. There are scenes that are built entirely on geometric progression. The painting starts at one point, transforming into a set of shapes that blooms into the eventual scenery. Kaleidoscopic backgrounds and mural-stoned-faces swell up the screen, while continuous mutations and distortions keep the atmosphere full of psychedelic vigor. It’s like a never-ending party in the 60s. The art-style is intensely experimental and frequently disorienting. The styles and influences here are endless: Watercolor paintings, ink-stencil portraits, sketchbook graphics, bubbly cartoons, and the list goes on – of all the various art-styles contained in this film. Even though the film ranges in the kind of techniques it employs – many of them being direct contrasts to one another – it never hiccups, not even once. The continual change in style becomes equally as important for the story. It’s a story with centuries of sociopolitical turmoil; unveiled through centuries of art evolution on canvas. And the best part is that it’s always fluid and flowing.
Consequently, the art is demanding, bold, highly erotic, often-etched-imminently, and absolutely unforgiving. The shots move ever-so emphatically; scenes feel as if being drawn out right then and there. The horror here transposes itself not just as a genre, but a state, an endless feeling that seduces the senses while suffocating the mind. There are scenes comprised of simple shapes, lines intersecting, and splashes of unending red and black that are more horrific than most horror films attempting to be anything more than a gore-fest nowadays. The film functions in directional panning waves that slide from painting to painting, with minimal movement and sparse dialogue. One of the most laudable aspects was the use of motion. Films, at a very fundamental level, need to master the skill of motion; To be able to capture the mobility of ideas in a visual format. In the same way that sometimes silence speaks louder than sound, stasis expresses visual ideas more potently than systematic movement. It’s animation revised; unbridled by traditional sequential movement, materialized through motion on canvas. Stasis then becomes as important as motion. Belladonna proves this with its delicate and deliberate staging and execution.
Now really, what is Belladonna about? The aesthetics tell it all. The “how” is infinitely more valuable than the “what”. Even then, there is still plenty to bask in, narratively. Belladonna is a purely visual experience, but isolating the narrative is worthwhile. Reconnecting with the earlier synopsis, Belladonna tells the seemingly unfortunate tale of Jeanne. On her wedding night, as custom dictates, Jeanne and her husband Jean must receive the okay from the baron (through paying ridiculous monetary “gifts”). As they cannot meet the high demands set by the Baron, Jeanne is subjected to ritualistic rape by the Baron and his house of ghastly courtiers. From then onward, Jeanne continues to suffer at the hands of her time, repeatedly violated by those in power and by circumstance, she finds herself in an old-fashioned predicament: compromising her humanity. It’s not original in its premise. Tales of religious persecution, power, and transformation almost always follow a similar formula: striking a deal with the devil. Therefore, the story unfolds on a two-fold: first, on the degradation of humanity and second, on the revival of it.
What sets Belladonna apart is its perspective and thematic subversion. The apparent importance of religion, tradition, and all these concepts that arise from scripture of society all take a backseat for Jeanne’s place in the world. She becomes the singular point of relevance amongst cosmic indifference, where she comes before the judgments of the world. This is crucial for the second half of the story and the ultimate, conclusion. The perspective here is refreshing, in the ways many modern fairy tales are, especially those with a female focus. The one that immediately comes to mind is a collection of short stories by Angela Carter titled The Bloody Chamber. These tales are of the revolutionaries — the nontraditional, and those unaligned with the religious depiction of “woman”–, where through the crevices of preordained evil and sacrilegious, arises positivity in the form of empowerment and transformation. These are far more important than redemption or “survival”. It’s history, art, and humanity revisited but with the scales tipping the other way. Thus, the devil becomes a tool. Evil becomes a means to an end. The deal becomes a means to an end. The body is shown to be purely material and the spirit/soul as mere propaganda. Things that held the greatest amounts of meaning become empty remnants in the face of ultimate transformation. The most important point is that woman and witch remain synonymous. This isn’t a movement to destroy humanity, but to revolutionize it.
Jeanne makes the deal and becomes a witch. Yet, she doesn’t seek revenge in the old-testament sort of horrific way. She sets the way for the townspeople and all those that violated her to find hell in their own manner, whether it’s through hedonism, paganism, or partaking in 24/7 orgies. The Black Plague is also a thing, here (and the origins are hilarious but terrifying). Jeanne helps those struck by the plague (using various plants and concoctions) and becomes their savior. With her “help”, the villagers willingly walk on their personalized road to perdition. (Belladonna is a nightshade plant. The root was used to make medicine, but the leaves and berries are deadly. It’s named after Venetian ladies who used it to dilate pupils for striking appearances). Jeanne assumes her rightly place as the Belladonna who in the wrong doses, proves to be lethal and insurmountable. As Angela Carter reformulates the heroine/woman in modern fairy tales, “Like the wild beasts, she lives without a future. She inhabits only the present tense, a fugue of the continuous, a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair,” we find ourselves seeing Jeanne reflected in the very same words. Jeanne descends into –what we perceive as– madness, a form of clinical hysteria from any angle. Despite that, there is something far deeper settling in her reverie: “The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.” And that very Carter-ian depiction becomes the absolute state of Jeanne.
Even with the inevitable “end” of Jeanne, the story holds true to what actualized empowerment entails: continuation. It doesn’t end with the body.
Experiencing Belladonna is very much like falling down a bottomless rabbit hole. A visceral drop where one experiences each grain of the twisted earth, swallowing wholly, their entire state of being. The dive isn’t measured. It’s freefall so fast, one almost feels like they are suspended in air, motionless. During those moments, every sensory receptor is attuned to an unknown, unearthly frequency. It’s a film designed to enthrall the senses and heighten all temporality. The kind of thing people do drugs for. Spectacularly, it achieves this for every second of its runtime. Enter this with an open mind. Belladonna knows for she is woman and witch, and both exist here simultaneously.
This is nothing groundbreaking, nothing that will change your world, but it is a fun little psychedelic trip. The few iconic scenes alone, such as her rape early on, leave enough that it is enjoyable even if it is a bit lacking in substance.
The art here is interestingly animated. The colors are always interesting to watch, and the animation mostly manages to be coherent despite the psychedelic nature. It is not always especially fluid, and I think that is what it has the hardest time balancing in a way that is totally watchable. I liked the art the most when the fluidity was best, but
it is still nice to look at a lot of the time when it pauses, especially on any beautiful looks of Jeanne. I like the disparity between Jeanne's beauty and everybody else; it lends a real power to her character development.
Jeanne's character as a typically frightfully powerful woman is interestingly played out here - she has a downfall not once, but twice! Jeanne's inability to rely on her husband or anyone at all, despite helping them out, makes her a nice tragic character in these downfalls. The baron is all right for an evil role, especially with how he is drawn, but his wife seems to be an especially weak character, suffocating story and enjoyment any time she is present.
The story is weak, and not because it leaves you guessing, but rather because it just cannot be told enough with the focus on the art. Since the art does spend a lot of time in psychedelic mode, taking minutes to flesh out basic ideas, it cannot really play up aspects of the story that it could otherwise. This also means that you are left guessing about a lot of aspects of the story.
The sound is not amazing, but is pretty much always enjoyable, especially if you like typical hard rock and psychedelic rock sounds. This spends more time sounding like early Deep Purple, but it also manages to sound like early Pink Floyd too. At the end it even adopts a sound like Ecstasy of Gold, but in a more Japanese style. It never excels in any of these modes, but it is never bad in any of them either, and nearly always compliments the art and story well
Overall, this is a rather "indulgent" work to watch, rather than something whose story or action you can simply sit back and let overawe you. If you are bored of typical anime and manga, however, this might be a nice little indulgent break.
This summer, American arthouse theaters screen one of the craziest anime films ever made, an erotic pseudo-historical musical acid trip produced by Osamu Tezuka in 1973. Learn about what makes Belladonna of Sadness a one-of-a-kind experience. Content Warning: discussion of sexual violence