In 1862 French historian Jules Michelet wrote "La Sorcière", a.k.a. "Witchcraft, Sorcery And Superstition", that chronicled the history of witchcraft in Europe from its origins as a folk religion in the Middle Ages. Through its over 300 pages Michelet used fairly purple prose to paint a uniquely sympathetic view of the peasant women who kept ancient pre-Christian beliefs alive straight through the Age of Enlightenment despite superstition and persecution. With its vivid descriptions of pagan gods and rituals it's not surprising that someone would one day try and take Michelet's work as the basis for a motion picture, but in the early 1970's it was exactly who ended up deciding to take on this 19th-century classic that might raise a few eyebrows. Mushi Productions, founded in 1961 by Osamu Tezuka, created family-friendly animated series based around such characters as Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Princess Knight. By the early 1970's though Mushi Pro was branching out in new and unpredictable directions with productions like "1001 Night" and "Cleopatra", the very first X-rated anime film. It was during these years of experimentation that Yoshiyuki Fukuda, the screenwriter who penned the script for Masahiro Shinoda's "Samurai Spy" and writer/ director Eiichi Yamamoto, who previously wrote and directed episodes of "Astro Boy" and "Kimba the White Lion," decided to weave a story about witchcraft with Michelet's treatise at its core. The end result was the remarkable 1973 animated film "Belladonna of Sadness".
In terms of plot "Belladonna of Sadness" doesn't vary that much from the tradition of fallen women that people the films of Mizoguchi, Naruse and the rape obsessed fantasies in the work of Roman Porno director Masaru Konuma. French country girl Jeanne (voiced by Aiko Nagayama) celebrates her wedding day with her new husband Jean (Katsuyuki Itô) only to be raped by a Catholic priest in a prima nocta moment straight out of "Braveheart". This tears the newlweds' relationship apart and in one of umpteenth visually jaw-dropping scenes Jeanne is literally and figuratively ripped apart by the pain of the crime. Now labeled a "ruined woman" and disowned by Jean she goes into an emotional exile where she encounters The Devil, although this devil is unlike any you will have seen onscreen before. At first just a few inches tall this robed and hooded sprite strongly resembles a male phallus, and like a phallus can grow in size and seduce the lonely Jeanne. When he first presents himself this evil imp even tricks Jeanne into an impromptu mock handjob, one of the many naughty and borderline hilarious moments in the film. If all this wasn't enough this devil/ penis is voiced by screen icon Tatsuya Nakadai. This first encounter leads to many others which lead Jeanne down the road to diabolical ruin and eventually crucifixion.
Not the most politically-correct of plots, but one that won't surprise obsessive fans of Japanese film with it's seeming delight in the slow debasement of a woman; but what makes "Belladonna of Sadness"so remarkable isn't any new twist it puts on this disturbing formula, but the way in which the story is presented using kaleidoscopic animation techniques. Trust me when I say that in all the realms and of all the roads that Japanese animators have taken us down that Yamamoto and his crew created a truly mind-boggling experience, and I say that in the best possible way. Jeannes journey is a wild mash up of colours, tones and artistic styles that includes everything from the Vienna Secessionists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, to the intricate pen and ink work of English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, the wild pop art of 60's trend-setter Peter Max, right through to the vibrant, dream-like visions of Marc Chagall. With the story being set in 18th-century France Yamamoto even makes the bold decision to end the film with the image of Eugène Delacroix's iconic 1830 painting "Liberty Leading the People".
With its innovative technique, tragic tone, and frank sexuality "Belladonna of Sadness"was a film definitely geared towards the art house and not towards the kiddies, but despite the involvement of Nakadai and the film's nomination for the |Golden Bear at the 1973 Berlin International Film Festival (it ended up losing out to Satyajit Ray's film "Distant Thunder") Yamamoto's mystical mind trip didn't connect with Japanese audiences and fizzled at the box office. Many critics believe that with Osamu Tezuka relinquishing control of Mushi Pro two years before the production of "Belladonna of Sadness" even began that the powers that be at the studio went off the rails and that the film's failure was the main factor behind the the bankruptcy of Tezuka's Mushi Production at the end of 1973; but despite the dollars and cents disaster that it was doesn't diminish it's astounding artistic achievement.
Was "Belladonna of Sadness", with its mix of "Do What Thou Will" Crowley-esque witchcraft, groovy music, and fixation on open sexuality a product of its time? Absolutely, but that doesn't excuse the fact that it's near criminal that Eiichi Yamamoto was relegated to simply writing and directing episodes of "Space Battleship Yamato" instead of being allowed to continue making animated features that would have built on the brilliance he showed with "Belladonna of Sadness". Why this film isn't better known today is beyond me. With our present fascination with pinku eiga from the 60's and 70's, singularly psychedelic movies like Nobuhiro Obayashi's "House", and retro masterpieces like the "Female Convict Scorpion" and "Stray Cat Rock" series the time for a domestic North American release of "Belladonna of Sadness" is ripe. Thankfully the Locarno International Film Festival screened the film as part of its line-up this past year. I can only hope that this will play a part in the rediscovery and reevaluation of this nearly forgotten masterpiece and put Eiichi Yamamoto's name alongside those of Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Masaaki Yuasa where it so richly deserves to be.
*Normally I only include a single still with our film reviews, but finding one single image from "Belladonna of Sadness" was nearly impossible, so I take the unprecedented step of including the original theatrical trailer for the film to better illustrate its innovative power and beauty.