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  • Ravi Swami

"Belladonna Of Sadness", Dir: Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973

Controversial, daring, misogynistic, stylish and often deeply disturbing are the words that come to mind after watching Eiichi Yamamoto's 1973 animated film "Belladonna of Sadness" (available on Criterion Channel) and I have to admit to being reluctant to review it soon after watching it, if at all, but it has many interesting qualities besides the striking Aubrey Beardsley inspired visual design - an artist whose themes overlap with those the film and the book that it is based upon.

Produced by Mushi Production, more well known for being established by Tezuka Osamu, creator of the hugely successful "Atom Boy" / "AstroBoy" as a vehicle for his other Manga spin-off animated films and TV series, the studio also encouraged projects by younger directors such as Yamamoto to explore experimental themes and graphic styles that didn't necessarily align with Tezuka Ozamu's own very distinctive graphic style and voice that was aimed squarely at a younger audience.

This is definitely not an animated film for kids but it does illustrate the power of the medium in expressing ideas visually in a way that could appear horrifying in a live-action film and many scenes veer into dubious territory, resulting a film that drifts into outright pornography of a particularly misogynistic and often disturbing kind.

The plot concerns a young couple, Jean and Jeanne in Medieval France (this detail alone illustrates how Japanese filmmakers often looked to Europe for inspiration, something detected in the work of Hayao Miyazaki for instance or even in Tezuka Osamu's Manga, "Princess Knight" being a good example) whose lives are destroyed when Jeanne, a virgin up to this point, is ritually raped by the town's baron and his debauched courtiers.

Jean tries to console her by telling her that everything that happened is in the past and should be forgotten when he initiates a reconciliation, however he strangles her to unconsciousness when they embrace and then flees in horror and remorse to weep outside their home.

Jeanne is visited in the night by a tiny phallus-shaped being that promises to bestow great power on her providing she offers up her soul to him, which she does, reluctantly while insisting that her soul is with God. This contract results in Jeanne becoming a wealthy woman in the village while Jean becomes a tax collector during a period of famine, so providing riches to the baron.

The phallus-shaped being is of course the Devil and as Jeanne's power grows, it soon reveals itself and demands a greater sacrifice, which is depicted quite graphically in the film. As the town is afflicted by Bubonic Plague, Jeanne offers up a cure in the form of a flower - the Belladonna of the title - that is a reward for giving up her soul and becomes the saviour of the village, however suspicion that she is a witch is soon aroused as her power grows and her demands become greater.

The film ends as Jeanne is burned at the stake for being a witch and there is a postscript that she inspired the French Revolution, illustrated with Eugene Delacroix's painting of Liberty as a woman leading the French masses to victory following the overthrow of the corrupt bourgeoisie and ruling classes, that seems curiously tacked on, as if to justify the often very graphic and misogynistic imagery that went before.

I think the intent of the film is to underline the power of women in society and of how often intelligence and the desire for knowledge were viewed with suspicion, the price being the trauma of violation, besides the mental illness that we now know accompanies trauma, but at the same time it places the main character of Belladonna, a woman, very much at the center of the film, but there are moments where you suspect the interest of the filmmaker lay elsewhere, perhaps for commercial reasons.

The film's visual design is quite ravishing and in common with many Japanese animated films there are scenes of full animation punctuated with long pans of static pen and ink wash drawing that have the feel of book illustrations rather than any attempt at depicting the world in a literal fashion, so they have their own in internal narrative as they move past the viewer.

"Belladonna Of Sadness" was not a successful film for the studio on its' release and its' relative obscurity can be put down to the controversial imagery in the film and also the pervading sense of misogyny, however, it remains an interesting exploration of the power of the medium to tell a different kind of story than is normally associated with animation and succeeds in drawing you in, almost against your will, with its' seductive graphic style.

Would I recommend it ? - I'd answer that by saying: "approach with caution" and try and extract what the film is actually about, even if gets obscured by the imagery, which is quite often.

"Belladonna Of Sadness", Dir: Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973

Criterion Channel


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