Belladonna of Sadness is a 70s Japanese adult animation gem formerly forgotten, but recently restored for current limited release; the film combines psychedelic and erotic imagery in a boldly experimental re-imagining of the idea of the ‘witch’.
From now til next week, the Los Angeles art and cinema scene will be treated to screenings of Belladonna of Sadness, the newest conduit for our current obsession with all things witch-y and goth, which all stated with the release of a staid yet hypnotic horror flick from last year. The political and social moment seemed so ripe for the arrival of 2015’s The Witch, the indie horror/thriller that turned the traditional conception of the witch on its head. Aside from its masterful control of atmosphere and tension, The Witch enchanted modern audiences with subtly feminist (and explosively anti-establishment) themes, subverting the witch into a modern symbol of female empowerment.
Serendipitously, this year sees the limited release of Belladonna of Sadness, a Japanese adult animated feature that, like The Witch, features a female protagonist mistreated and maligned until the arms of Satan are the only logical recourse. Belladonna packs the same progressive thrust as The Witch, but for a few differences. One: obviously, one is animated, the other is not. Two: Belladonna came 40 years earlier. Three: The Witch is all Puritan doom and gloom, while Belladonna is all Yellow Submarine-style psychedelia, Japanese pinku erotica, with a dash of Schoolhouse Rock.
Belladonna of Sadness tells the story of a beautiful commoner named Jeanne, who is brutally raped on her wedding night by the local ruling Lord with his corrupt court spectating. Over the course of the film, Jeanne’s awakening sexuality manifests as a phallic anthropomorphization. Persecution and exile eventually compel her to enter a Satanic pact, empowering her at last to combat her foes. Belladonna was made back in 1973 by Mushi Production (a studio established by the god of manga himself, Osamu Tezuka) which was famous for putting their money and efforts in technically ambitious (and overtly erotic) animated releases, a trio of flicks called collectively Animerama.
The film series was essentially the animated counterpart to the then-popular erotic/exploitation genre known as Pink Cinema. Towards that end, Animerama was a success by its own standards. The first ambitious first title, Thousand and One Nights, clocked in at a whopping 130 minutes and set the trend of experimental and ambitious animation, continued by the bafflingly avant-garde Cleopatra. While the former at least was a success in Japan commercially and critically, neither gained traction abroad: the rest of the world simply wasn’t ready to accept ‘adult’ animation, much less erotic animation. In spite of all that, Mushi Production cleaved to their philosophy of bringing liberated animation to the big screen, and went ahead with Belladonna of Sadness, whose commercial failure would go on to bankrupt the company.
This public aversion to erotic animation only lends Belladonna of Sadness greater cultural gravitas as an act of transgression on multiple levels. Not only did it tell a story of unpent sexual energies, its artistic style reached for a liberated freeform style. Director Eiichi Yamamoto and artist Kuni Fukai looked to erotic-symbolist painter Gustav Klimt for stylistic cues, and incorporated experimental animation techniques such as live action sequences, and still panoramic paintings with narration. Just the simple fact of its ethos and existence flew in the face of sexually repressive cultural norms, an ethos that can be seen clearly in the the text that Yamamoto and Fukai called their main inspiration: Satanism and Witchcraft by Jules Michelet.
The seminal 19th century treatise was remarkable in its sympathy towards the historically persecuted figure known as the witch. Far from being a condemnation, Satanism and Witchcraft was an examination of the witch’s philosophies and motivations, in the context of repressive Christian and masculine forces. It unambiguously painted witchcraft as an anti-establishment practice meant to combat feudalism and the iniquities of the Roman Catholic Church. According to the text, the sorceress’s mantra is that “nothing is impure and nothing unclean,” in direct challenge to modern and traditional taboos on feminine identity and biology.
Michelet’s proto-feminist ideas and allegory of the witch were revived in Belladonna, which is now currently seeing its own revival at an exceedingly timely cultural moment. The technical restoration of Belladonna of Sadness was initiated by Hadrian Belove, cofounder of Cinefamily, a nonprofit revival cinematheque located in Los Angeles, CA. Distribution company Cinelicious Pics undertook 1000 hours of painstaking touch-ups and edits to restore the original reels to glory. Most exciting is the addition of eight minutes of cut footage, fortuitously discovered in the possession of Belgian cinema archive Cinematek. According to lead restoration artist Craig Rogers, the footage was probably cut both to reduce the running time, and also probably for the sexually explicit content therein.
The exceeding visual beauty of Belladonna of Sadness is reason enough to catch one of the numerous screenings happening now until mid-June. But in consideration of the film’s tumultuous history and bold spirit of artistic/sexual release, Belladonna should prove a landmark event for anyone interested in nontraditional animation, cinematic history, and foreign film.