[Anime] ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ by Eiichi Yamamoto

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News reached me that Belladonna of Sadness [哀しみのベラドンナ] (1973) is finally being released for the first time ever in America this month. I thought it good timing to rewatch my Japanese DVD of this long lost gem in animation. Produced by the now defunct Mushi Production and directed by Eiichi Yamamoto [ 山本暎一], the film is loosely based on Jules Michelet’s (1798-1874) La Sorcière (1862), a historical account of the witch hunts.

Synopsis:
The heroine Jeanne is raped by the feudal lord, who exercises his droit du seigneur on her wedding night. Her husband nearly strangles her for her ‘impurity’ but in the end tells her to forget about the incident. One day, as she is spinning, the devil appears, saying that she has called out to him to help her in exchange for her soul. The devil wakens her sexual libido and, after much resistance, she finally yields to the pleasure he gives. She goes to town wearing a green coat (green being the colour of the devil) and ‘earns’ a lot of money. A war then takes place and the feudal lord leads the men away for war. On his return, he is told by his lady, who is jealous of Jeanne’s erotic powers, that Jeanne is possessed by the devil. The lord then allows his soldiers to gang-rape her. She runs towards her home but her husband locks her out, so she turns to the devil for refuge. Later, a plague strikes the land and it is discovered that she can cure the sick miraculously, which eventually leads to accusations of witchcraft…

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A History of the Many Versions of Belladonna of Sadness

One of the scenes omitted in the fourth version

One of the scenes omitted in the fourth version.

According to the DVD pamphlet, there has been at least five versions of Belladonna of Sadness.

  • The first was a draft version hastily filled with temporary placeholder shots in order to meet a deadline. It has never been shown in public.
  • The second version included life-action footages by Daido Moriyama [森山大道] showing sex and nudity. Apparently Moriyama took these footages of men and women engaging in the sex act in parks and red-light districts. These footages were meant to be shown during two interval breaks (in the first half after Jeanne’s contract with the devil and in the second half after the coming of spring). Although these had been shown in some early theatre viewings, they were ultimately omitted in the later versions in order to maintain the film’s unity of artistic style. The second version also ended with the devil laughing in the crowd after Jeanne’s execution. This ending was poorly received at the Berlin Film Festival, and was omitted altogether in some later versions.
  • The third version was one edited for theatre screenings. This version omitted Moriyama’s live-action footages and ended with the devil’s laughter.
  • The fourth version was one edited for the revival of this film in 1979. Because the creators were concerned about female college students among their audiences, they omitted the aggressively sexual scenes. At the same time, they also added the scene towards the end where the “face of Jeanne” is reincarnated in a crowd of female by-standers who saw her execution, and the final scene where the Old Regime is toppled by revolutionaries during the French Revolution.
  • The fifth version is the LD disc video version. They restored the sexual scenes omitted in the fourth version. (This is also the version I have in the DVD.)

Commentary and Analysis 

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It seems fair to say that the artstyle of Belladonna of Sadness was inspired by, among other things, the art nouveau movement – and by Aubrey Beardsley in particular. I think art nouveau artists and Beardsley tended to be more oblique when it comes to sexual references whereas this film is much more in your face (okay, maybe not Beardsley, at least not all the time). See, for example, the pears in border of La Beale Isoud at Joyous Guard – the pears are actually distorted forms of the female torso; and look at Isoud’s dress – it is full of holes. So there you have subtle visual hints of sexual desire in a seemingly demure young lady. But this film is more in-your-face than that. The scene of Jeanne’s rape reminds me of a scene from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers where a woman mutilates her genitals with a piece of broken glass in front of her husband. Director Yamamoto managed to use an unconventional graphical approach to depict the pain of rape. The emotional impact is awe-inspiring.

There are obvious anarchronisms in the psychodelic trance of Jeanne when she experiences sexual esctasy. Quite a lot of those anarchronisms are references from the 1960’s-1970’s.

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Belladonna of Sadness is very much a product of its age. The central message is undoubtedly “make love, not war. The war in the story may be an indirect reference to the Vietnam War, whereas Jeanne may well be the embodiment of the anti-war counterculture (ie. recreational drug use, free sex etc).

Jeanne strikes a Faustian pact with Devil – in exchange for her body and soul, he will grant her a wish. I am intrigued by her answer to the Devil – she says she wants to “do bad things”. Usually, if one wants to do bad things, one could just do them. Moreover, it is not clear what bad things she has done besides a few rolls in the hay.

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Which reminds me of the fact that the only way a woman could claim spiritual/mystical authority in the Middle Ages was through sexual abstinence, fasting and receiving visions. Jeanne is clearly the opposite, but the line between a saint and a heretic is thin – the feudal lord, who wants to tap into her magical powers, offers her the highest rank of nobility. It is only because she refuses by saying that she does not need a social position and wants to have “the whole world” that the feudal lord condemns her to the flames.

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3 thoughts on “[Anime] ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ by Eiichi Yamamoto

  1. I learnt about this film from your first blog and I love it. I find the rape scene ingenious and as disturbing as it should be.

    The historic info you gave us about the 4 editions are precious as they show that a story has been altered according to the demands and feelings of an audience way before social media appeared and started steadily changing the way a story is written.

    By the way where do you think the muted color palette is inspired from?

  2. @ Ayame

    I can’t say for sure if the muted color palette is deliberate or just the way they remastered it from the original recording. I gathered that the current American release is 4K and I wonder if the colours may look more saturated or something.

    Of all the versions that exist for this film, I have a feeling that I would have preferred the original ending where the devil gets the last laugh (even though I have never seen it). I mean – the devil getting the last laugh – what more fitting an ending could there be for a film like this?

    • If we’re talking about emotional impact, devil having the last laugh would be strong, but I think it changes the focus/message of the story; it gives it a more religious aspect since the focus would shift away from Joan’s suffering because she chose freedom to the devil. As it is, it’s a story of female liberation and Joan’s death became the catalyst for a cultural revolution.

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