Screen Sorcery: Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

Belladonna of Sadness (1973) begins with a joyful wedding. We first meet the lovely Jeanne, our guide through this strange fairy tale, and her beau Jim as they exchange marriage vows. When the couple returns to their humble abode, their wedded bliss is interrupted by the arrival of the reigning king and his minions who brutally assault Jeanne in an act of ceremonial rape that leaves her broken and bewildered. In her despair, the young beauty makes a pact with the Devil who takes the shape of a mutating phallus that promises her pleasure and power. Afterward Jeanne’s world descends into a dark hallucinatory nightmare of swirling colors propelled by sorcery, perpetual pain and erotic ecstasy.

This adult anime (animated) film was produced in Japan by Mushi Productions under the banner Animerama. The Mushi studio was the brainchild of Osamu Tezuka, a pioneer in his field known to many as “the godfather of manga” and the “Walt Disney of Japan.” Tezuka began his career as a manga (comic book) artist at age 18 and was eventually employed by Toei Animation. He formed Mushi in 1963 as a competitor when his contract with Toei expired.

Before Mushi began focusing on adult material, they produced a number of highly successful animated series for all ages based on Tezuka’s original manga that included Astro Boy (1963–1966) Kimba the White Lion (1965–1966) and Princess Knight (1967–1968). The quality of Mushi’s work was exceptional but it came with a price and the studio had trouble staying afloat due to the high cost of production. Creating a series of adult animated films seemed like a smart way to make some easy money so under the Animerama banner, Mushi created three erotic films beginning with One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1969) followed by Cleopatra: Queen of Sex (1970). Their final and most inventive effort was Belladonna of Sadness in 1973 but unfortunately, it could not save the studio, which went bankrupt soon after its release. Despite the end of Mushi, adult animation had found a welcoming audience in Japan where it has continued to flourish for decades. Today adult anime is a diverse and imaginative medium incorporating many niche genres and a variety of artistic styles.

Although Tezuka’s name is most frequently associated with the Mushi studio, Belladonna of Sadness was produced by a team of creatives that included director and screenwriter Eiichi Yamamoto (One Thousand and One Arabian Nights [1969], Cleopatra: Queen of Sex [1970], Space Battleship Yamato [1974-1975]), voice actress Aiko Nagayama (Kwaidan [1965], The Man Without a Map [1968],Tora-san’s Runaway [1970]) and composer Masahiko Satô (Panda! Go Panda [1972], Unico [1981],Final Fantasy [1994]) who provided the film with its searing rock fusion and dissident jazz score. However, the most astounding talent on display is that of artist Kuni Fukai (Marco [1976] Metamorphoses [1978]), who was responsible for the overall look of the production. In fact, this animated film contains very little animation and instead relies on Fukai’s dream-inducing artwork, with its psychedelic hues, delicate lines and bold motifs, to define the narrative thrust of the plot and enchant viewers.

Before making this film Fukai worked as an illustrator for Heibon Punch, a cutting-edge counter-culture magazine for men that contained adult content. Another contributor to Heibon Punch was acclaimed artist Tadanori Yokoo (Diary of a Shinjuku Thief [1969]) who also created a series of animated films including Kiss Kiss Kiss (1964) and Kachi Kachi Yama (1965). Yokoo’s style shares a commonality with American pop artist Peter Max as well as Heinz Edelmann who was responsible for the production design on Yellow Submarine (1968). Despite these comparisons, the experimental nature of Tadanori Yokoo’s work has a distinct Japanese sensibility and may have influenced the unconventional construction of Belladonna of Sadness, which relies on camera pans across Kuni Fukai’s artwork to create movement reminiscent of turning the page of a comic book.

It’s also worth noting that Kuni Fukai contributed to manga publications such as Cobalt magazine, an illustrated shōjo (girl) fiction anthology aimed at a female audience. At the time shōjo was a budding genre that gave birth to the “Year 24 Group,” a collection of innovative female artists that included Riyoko Ikeda (The Rose of Versailles), Moto Hagio (The Poe Family), Keiko Takemiya (Kaze to Ki no Uta) and Toshie Kihara (Angelique). These women were transforming the look and narrative of Japanese manga by setting their stories in Europe and forgoing typical comic book design by using unique panel layouts and incorporating empty space to generate emotion and drama. They also didn’t shy away from sex and their work was often infused with eroticism, including transgressive depictions of rape that share a similar aesthetic with Belladonna of Sadness, which some will find difficult and unpleasant to watch.

Much like early shōjo manga inspired by European literature and history, Belladonna of Sadness was originally based on an unusual tome titled Satanism and Witchcraft. It was written by the 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet who described ‘belladonna’ as a key ingredient in witches’ ointments. Michelet has also been portrayed as a feminist author who saw witches as pagan priestesses using magic to combat patriarchy. Despite this, I find that the film’s origins owe just as much more to the sensual reveries found in libertine (Marquis de Sade, Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, John Wilmot), decadent (Joris-Karl Huysmans, Rachilde, Oscar Wilde) and symbolist (Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Zinaida Gippius) literature. In addition, the imagery of the film is reminiscent of European artists (Audrey Beardsley, Franz von Bayros, Félicien Rops, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele) who worked within these highly stylized movements and were revered by many Japanese artists and writers at the time that Belladonna of Sadness was made.

Other influences include Ero guro, a uniquely Japanese artistic faction that first emerged in ukiyo-o (woodblock prints) and embraced violent, erotic and grotesque imagery. Ero guro artists worked in many mediums such as manga, as well as extreme horror and pink films that challenge American’s puritanical sensibilities.

The talented women and men who produced these jarring works of art were rebelling against moralism while making “Art for Art’s Sake.” They also adapted aspects of the Symbolist Manifesto which stated:

Accordingly, in this art, the depictions on nature, the actions of human beings, all the concrete phenomena would not manifest themselves; these are but appearances perceptible to the senses destined to represent their esoteric affinities with primordial ideas.”
– from Symbolism, Its Origins and Its Consequences by Rosina Neginsky

Many find these concepts hard to embrace but Belladonna of Sadness rejects simplicity for ambiguity, allowing its female character to define her own carnal boundaries where submission, consent, and sexual longing find peculiar outlets.

This beautifully rendered adult anime is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD from Cinelicious Pics but it’s not for everyone. The combination of horror, violence, sex and occasional humor will undoubtedly leave many viewers shaking their heads, wringing their hands, and clutching their pearls. While it can be appreciated as an artistic experience, some American critics have tried to define it as a feminist film with a clear-cut theme but I can’t agree with that conclusion. While the film does make a strong case against the evils of empire and religious hypocrisy, the truth is that the Japanese view of feminism is very different from Americans, particularly in 1973 when Belladonna of Sadness was made. As Japanese film critic Sato Rado once explained:

“The image of a woman suffering uncomplainingly can imbue us with admiration for a virtuous existence almost beyond our reach, rich in endurance and courage. One can idealize her rather than merely pity her, and this can lead to what I call worship of womanhood, a special Japanese brand of feminism.”

– Film critic Sato Rado

Rado was describing the women found in the films of Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba [1964], Kuroneko [1968]), Kenji Mizoguchi (Life of Oharu [1952], Ugetsu [1953]) and Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships [1962], The Insect Woman [1963]) but this description can easily be applied to the character of Jeanne in Belladonna of Sadness.

I suggest enjoying the film as an aesthetic exercise made during a very specific period in Japanese history that defies easy categorization by western critics. Viewers eager to pass moral judgment or instill their own ideologies onto this atypical animated film should put aside their modern occidental ideas of right and wrong.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published in 2016 at in association with Turner Classic Movies