The 1973 Japanese animation feature film Belladonna of Sadness defies its roots in the sexploitation genre by spending as much time on sex as it does feudal politics and superstitions, witchcraft, Satanism, and even the Black Death. A bizarrely beautiful film, its slow-paced animation style and strangely apt treatment of themes of exile, detachment, violation and commodification of the body make it strange bedfellows with the other “adult” animated films produced by Mushi Production that proceeded it, or even its contemporary softcore “pink” live-action films. Belladonna feels more at home with gekiga manga (1970s adult-themed graphic novels), whose artists including Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Seiichi Hayashi, and even elder anime/manga statesman Osamu Tezuka (who bankrolled Mushi Pro) explored themes of eroticism through a more cynical and sometimes paranoid lens, glancing cautiously towards the new positioning of women in post-war Japan—albeit undeniably through their own male gaze.
The gekiga exploration of women’s new roles in the post-war urban landscapes of Japan gave way to entirely new breeds to be afraid of: the short stories of Yoshihiro Tatsumi produced mystical, vengeance-seeking witches who punished the sins of men who had wronged them by throwing innocent men down inescapable holes, wicked prostitutes who laughed at their johns’ sexual blunders while lining their pockets with cash, relentlessly shrewd and nagging mothers, and daughters so debased by the devastation of war they thought nothing of fucking their own fathers (and laughing at their inadequacies as men). Osamu Tezuka’s exploration of the new “career girl,” The Book of Human Insects, birthed an ambition-driven, unstoppable vampiric woman who fed off intellectually and morally superior men, and his Ayako looked at how a feral woman’s innocent, immature sexuality drove powerful men to incest, murder, and corruption that spread into corporate Japan and the world. The common thread in these stories seems to be that in addition to the alienation brought on by the modern world between man and nature, the introduction of women as peers and sexual sparing partners had hardened and chilled them; they became less knowable than ever before.
Tezuka shifted interest from fantasies of modern women to antiquity with his extremely ill-executed animation Cleopatra, Queen of Sex (1970), however its function barely registers in its choppy and embarrassingly immature style. Looking back to a 19th century French text on witchcraft in middle ages (Jules Michelet’s Satanism and Witchcraft), the Belladonna team found the perfect period to explore contemporary paranoia about the powers of women, while still enticing audiences with promises of psychedelic sex.
All of the elements of a classic 1970s softcore pornography are present in Belladonna: throbbing soundtrack, stimulating visuals, a plot conceit that gives way to a free-love free-for-all. This could have very easily been a straightforward erotic piece—the groundwork was already being laid internationally, when several female heroines with open-minded sexual preferences and insatiable appetites for conquest and adventure had captured public imagination (think Emmanuelle, Barbarella, Crepax’s Valentina, etc.). However, Belladonna transgresses its genre not so much in spite of itself but because of itself: it challenges viewers to bear witness to a woman’s violation and acceptance of an all-consuming evil that eventually leads to her demise. And somewhere in that mess, it still communicates a soft, affecting sensuality and a powerful, if paranoid, exploration of female sexual agency. How does this work?
Let’s start with Belladonna‘s sexual politics, which establish three points: one, that our protagonist, Jeanne, is seen and treated by the world as property and not a person, two, that because her body is not fully owned by her it is open to possession by outside forces, and three, that her subsequent detachment from the rules of society—and subsequent sexual awakening—makes her a dangerous entity.
Jeanne’s systematic betrayals are unrelenting in Belladonna: the institution of marriage under feudalism by which she has become a valued property as virgin is the same institution that debases her as victim to the king and his court: when her husband is unable to pay sufficient tax on their new marriage, Jeanne is claimed by the king’s droit du seigneur. There was never a choice for Jeanne as her body was never hers. This is a woman who has done the “right” things by the terms set upon her—remained a virgin, abstained from acting on her own will, and submitted to the rights of the king—but is still punished.
Belladonna abstracts Jeanne’s rape by the king while still connecting its physical pain with mental decimation, as we see her body torn from between her legs through her chest. It is a particularly shocking scene and difficult to parse after the lush watercolor landscapes and folk melodies that came before it; here the animation switches gears to deliberate reds, flat blacks, absence of depth, and the Masahiko Sato soundtrack kicks into its harshest gear. This scene’s confrontational style is the most effective communication in Belladonna, while the rest of the film that follows is full of painterly gesture and innuendo. Cues for audience titillation are rampant in Belladonna but completely (and mercifully) absent here. Perhaps the most emotionally resonant scene in the film follows her return home after the rapes when she sheds her destroyed frock and looks at herself in the mirror. The grey, dust-covered reflection strikes out any glint of the psychedelic flair the film will crank out again in the following minutes. The visual is eerie and potent, and foreshadows her coming treatment as an “other” force among the living.
The depreciation of Jeanne as property affects the farm life around her as it would if the land itself had been ruined. Her husband Jean’s work ceases, because work ceases, crops don’t yield, because crops don’t yield, hunger and poverty continue to spread. Jeanne’s presence shifts from a beauty and beacon of light, essentially a beautiful and hopeful blessing, to a weeping husk; her husband sees through her, ignores her sorrow, and turns to drink (his own body eventually falls prey to the same forces as he loses a hand to his debtors later in the film). The dissociation of the people around her after the rape has turned Jeanne essentially into the living dead, a constant reminder of not only her possession and defilement by the all-powerful masculine but of the financially dominant as well; in his impotence Jean can only weakly suggest they forget the entire incident.
It is through this series of events and subsequent reactions that Jeanne detaches, and in Belladonna, much like in the gekiga examples cited earlier, an emotionally detached woman is a dangerous one. Trauma mixed with her life’s training to deny her agency has created in her the perfect vessel for a force outside of herself. It’s here where Belladonna establishes a rubric for what can only become a sympathetic witch: because Jeanne has no shot at redemption in goodness, as “goodness” on its own terms only reinforced her status as property, there can only be survival, and possibly hope, in evil. Furthermore, because Jeanne’s sexuality is what connotes her status as property, it also solidifies her as other, and in the feudal Christian system, the other can only be satanic. The evil that manifests in Jeanne is, of course, nothing compared to the evil system (i.e. patriarchal feudalism) that subjugates everyone around her, and Jeanne’s powers only really serve her in survival for so long, but here the agency not only Jeanne craves but the audience craves for her is finally delivered.
After three initial protests, Jeanne’s final spiritual and physical submission to Satan echoes the earlier rape scene, however its graphic elements (in both design and depiction) have been replaced by eroticism; we are made to feel Jeanne’s complicities and even desire in this scene. However, there is little visible joy in Jeanne’s participation, and the abstraction used earlier returns to confuse and split Jeanne’s body, wrapped around a massive, satanic shaft. The empty Jeanne we saw looking back at herself in the mirror earlier in the film is still here, but the hollowness has only been smoothed over by a (questionably willing, perhaps even performative) desire for evil. As time goes on, more and more villagers join in her endless wilderness orgies, eventually forming a huge throbbing ring of fucking that surrounds her woodland paradise like a halo. Her connection to nature (aka Satan’s church) becomes so powerful that she even learns to raise the dead, which draws the ire of the king and queen.
While evil has been proven to be the only way to actualization in Belladonna, the perversion of desiring it echoes in the campiness of two scenes: the first, when Jeanne submits to the devil and asks to do anything, “so long as it’s bad,” and second, when an old woman recounts with joy the vision Jeanne has given her of her dead grandson suffering in hell. Here is where Belladonna skips a beat that could have led it into rape-revenge territory: Jeanne does not use her new powers of witchcraft to seek vengeance so much as to maintain enough power to continue to survive, and possibly help others not only to live but to seek some joy in their lives. And despite the film’s incredible centerpiece in which the surrounding world falls prey to the Black Death, it is not noted anywhere in the text of the film that Jeanne’s new power and the plague were at all related; just two different frequencies that happened to be humming along at the same time. However, because of its seeming irrelevance, the Black Death scene could have been just as easily cut from the final film—especially a film intended to be erotic! Are we as an audience meant to link the oncoming of the plague to the rising danger of the powerful, detached woman? If Jeanne’s status as ruined property ultimately effected the poverty of the town, are we meant to understand her sympathies with dark forces to have connections to its being rocked by disease as well?
I believe it is reasonable to assume that while there is sympathy and even empathy for the woman decimated by patriarchy in Belladonna, it follows that there is also a paranoia as to how the detached woman’s newfound power will eventually negatively affect men. Jeanne’s new spirituality, in which she can use flowers to heal, cast love spells, and find sexual release with the devil all serve her fine, but it’s a final grab for power that undoes her. While we leave the theater sympathetic to Jeanne (she is, after all, the titular Sadness queen), one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if she’d overthrown her own burning at the stake and annihilated her village. Would it have been cathartic? Would Jeanne have even enjoyed ruining the town complicit in her ruin (à la Von Trier’s Dogville)? Or would that have been too easy?
It is here that it is essential to remember that this film was born of male fantasy, and its context complicates its readings as a “feminist” film. Contemporary cinema seems more interested in examining these larger questions, as in 2016’s The Witch, which tangles projection, motivation and complicity in witchcraft (but was also conceived by a male director). Jeanne’s ultimate undoing is her asking for all of the power of the king—even her high rank as Satan’s right hand can’t undo this transgression. Somewhere in the conception of an erotic story of a woman who finds redemption in witchcraft and open sexuality there was also a knowing halt to her gaining full control. It is here where the final question of Belladonna lies: where do our own empathies with the disenfranchised woman stop as well?
 The world wasn’t quite ready for this story, however, Mushi Pro closed shortly after the film’s extremely limited, confounding release.
 I’d like to note here that it wasn’t until a second viewing that I noticed the king glibly offers Jeanne to his court when he’s finished with her; a particularly vulgar, punishing detail.
 I read this as a brilliant, perverse Denial of Peter, but your mileage may vary.
Belladonna of Sadness is screening at Metrograph in New York City through June 2nd.