As a critic with an interest in the history of Japanese animation and manga, it is refreshing once in a while to come across a film that is like nothing you’ve seen before. While some animé films save money by using limited animation here and there, before Belladonna of Sadness I’d never seen a movie where around 40% of the running time consists of the camera panning across still drawings and paintings. By using this technique so extensively in-between the more traditionally animated sections, it avoids appearing like a cost-saving exercise (which is not to say it wasn’t, as the film actually bankrupted an animation studio) and creates a very different kind of storytelling that seems to hark back to older forms of Japanese entertainment such as Kamishibai or Emaki-mono. Kamishibai storytellers would travel from town to town entertaining children with a box that had an opening at the front, in and out of which different painted scenes could be moved, like a 2D version of paper theatre, with a soundtrack performed by the storyteller. Revived in 1920s Japan during the global economic depression, Kamishibai had its roots in an older form of pictorial narrative, that of Emaki-mono scrolls, which display a story to the viewer as they roll the unfolding image from one end of the scroll to the other.
By containing filmed versions of both Kamishibai and Emaki-mono and mixing the style of older visual narratives with more modern animation (which in this case lifts imagery from 1970s fashion magazines and even a brief homage to The Beatles’ 1968 Yellow Submarine), Belladonna of Sadness almost feels like a tour of Japanese visual storytelling culture. All of this may sound charming – and indeed it often is – but the film is certainly not suitable for children, as the starting point for the screenplay was a 19th-century book called Satanism and Witchcraft (La sorcière) by Jules Michelet, and the film contains many scenes of rape committed against the central character. Although these scenes are thankfully tamer than hentai animè from a decade later, such as the risible Urotsukidôji: Legend of the Overfiend (1989), or even live action cinema at the time – for example Lady Snowblood released the same year – the imagery of a woman split apart by a river of blood that splinters into bats is still the stuff of nightmares.
The plot is a somewhat misogynist tale of a poor couple who try to raise the tithe needed to get married on their local Baron’s estate. When he demands 10 times the amount, the fiancé has no choice but to let his bride spend a night with the Baron instead. Deflowered and full of shame, the next day Jeanne welcomes a penis-shaped demon into her bedroom (and body) so she can be empowered with the forces of evil to fight the corrupt regime they live in. The fantastical and erotic elements of the film are sometimes an uneasy mix, and perhaps only the use of scrolling images to replace much of the animation prevents the film from being a gruelling experience, as the focus of the plot is often on the repeated abuse of the female protagonist.
The third in a trilogy of animated ‘pink’ films made under the supervision of Osamu Tezuka, the most revered creator of Japanese manga, Belladonna of Sadness followed two light-hearted erotic fantasies by the same director, which contained animation that was recognisably by Tezuka himself – One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). However, this film swaps the child-friendly artwork of Astro Boy (1964) and Kimba the White Lion (1966) for a striking style influenced by fin-de-siècle European artists such as Aubrey Beardsley and Gustav Klimt. The soundtrack is also exemplary, and like the globetrotting visual aesthetics, mixes sleazy Euro-pop – of the kind that might grace a 1960s film by Roger Vadim – with Japanese jazz. Only the subject matter leaves a bad taste in the mouth, which the filmmakers clumsily try to belatedly justify with a coda comparing the events of the movie with the sacrifices made by women who died during the French Revolution. But the many unique elements that make the film stand out from its peers, including the art on screen, combined with the Emaki-mono presentation, make Belladonna of Sadness a must-see for fans of Japanese animation.
Watch the trailer: