In the late 1960s, Mushi Pro, anime icon Osamu Tezuka and Eiichi Yamamoto were taking note of their media surroundings. With the Hays Code in the United States being replaced with the new MPAA system and counterculture movements popping up all over the world, the animation company decided to take some risks. , Mushi Pro invested in making three films, now known as the Animerama trilogy, over the course of the late 60s and early 70s. The first two were based on Middle Eastern folk tales and North African history, with the intention of adding comedy and sexual content. Both involved the hand of Tezuka, in direction and style. Neither did well monetarily within Japan or overseas, partially due to an upstaging by Ralph Bakshi works, like Fritz the Cat, that proved to be more popular. In a last ditch effort, Mushi Pro, without Tezuka, threw the last of their budget into making Belladonna of Sadness. The film would be a departure from its predecessors in tone and animation style, based on a nonfiction book from Medieval France entitled Satanism and Witchcraft. To save money, the company used limited animation and the style was more like Gustav Klimt’s work (impressionist watercolors) instead of the traditional Tezuka anime template. Unfortunately, like the other two, the film failed and Mushi Pro went bankrupt. Belladonna of Sadness almost fell into obscurity until home video distributor Cinelicious Pics restored a re-edited version in 2016. The recent 4K restoration ascended Yamamoto’s film to cult status, especially due to its art style, psychedelic rock score by jazz composer Masahiko Sato and dark themes. However, aside from the style, what were the creators attempting to achieve? Were Mushi Pro and Yamamoto only wanting to create a purely artistic endeavor with no thoughtful intent or are they creating a nod and response to the second wave feminist movement and new countercultural shifts of the mid century?
Through musical narration (performed by Satoh’s wife, an angelic-voiced Chinatsu Nakayama), viewers learn about the marriage between Jean (Katsutaka Ito) and Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama), two poor villagers. On the night of their wedding, Jeanne is ritually raped by the town’s Lord. In a series of twisted events, Jeanne is influenced by a phallic-shaped spirit growing within her and then Satan himself, who offers magic and power. Jeanne accepts, but states she will only give up her body, not her soul. As the economy dwindles and plague rises in the village, Jeanne uses her powers for healing and wanton desires, leading to burnings at the stake for witchcraft performances. In a re-edit, an image of Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” implies that the spirit of Jeanne influenced women throughout history — namely French — to be revolutionaries.
As a piece of art representing its time, Belladonna of Sadness seems to have many influences and similarities from its contemporaries. A sequence in which Jeanne gets her powers is reminiscent of the illustration style popularized by Heinz Edelmann, who worked on The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine a few years before Yamamoto’s film was finished. The connection between music and narrative, especially with original scores or newer music, shares roots with Kenneth Anger’s short films. Anger, who prescribed to the esoteric spiritual philosophy of Thelema, was interested in filming new age rituals. Lucifer Rising would be shown across the world (with similar religious themes), and the two productions would have a quiet re-emergence in the early 1980s; the Faust narrative would have a small film resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s with Bedazzled, Phantom of the Paradise and Rosemary’s Baby. Suddenly, the exploitation genre, alongside the pornographic film industry, began to rise within pop culture. Belladonna of Sadness could be categorized as an early rape revenge exploitation film, as well as one that portrays a woman in an impure, sexual state.
Inspired by rising trends in the United States and Europe, Japan was not alone in participating in the second wave of feminism. In the early 70s, prominent figure Mitsu Tanaka stated, “What I want is not a man or a child. I want to have a stronger soul with which I can burn myself out either in heartlessness or in tenderness. Yes, I want a stronger soul.” While Tanaka and women across the world took force through legislation and social change, Jeanne is not rewarded the same privileges. She is subjected to rape multiple times, often in a highly sexualized manner. When the Lord has his way, an animated red shape suggestively pumps into a still-traumatized Jeanne. She never gets the chance to reclaim her body or to emotionally heal. Instead, Jeanne is granted spiritual powers — again, through rape — and gains a sense of superiority, only to be ripped down once again by death. Besides this, Jeanne — as a character — is not deep. She is a representation of the lithe supermodel body, worn by Twiggy and all of Charlie’s Angels, which was the beauty ideal in Western (and even Japanese) media. Belladonna of Sadness didn’t add any sort of meat into the movement with its existence — it stayed idle instead. Despite its moving narrative, the portrayal and treatment of Jeanne doesn’t add up.
I don’t believe Mushi Pro and Yamamoto’s intentions were to empower women and stand beside the women’s liberators both in Japan and in the West, but to push the envelope for what animation means as a medium. Instead of creating more media for children and families, they experimented with three films that could be funny, heartbreaking, dark and sexy for an adult audience. While Mushi Pro folded after the film’s premiere, the risks taken to create their own response to new waves of art and postmodernism have achieved cult status. The animation, design and colors are beautifully lush, while Satoh’s score is timeless. Audiences viewing through a modern lens will find that this work — while not feminist in design or execution — is still a landmark of adult-oriented animated cinema.
Watch ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ at Shudder.
Marianna Aloisio-Seale (@mlaloisio) is a freelance film writer who specializes in writing about women in film and mid-century cinema. She is an upcoming Cinema and Media Studies MA student at UCLA. Her work can be found on Fandor and Screen Queens.