Satan is a talking phallus, then a labia transforms into a flower. The dominant visual symbols in Belladonna of Sadness  are ones you’ve maybe seen before (the second one, at least.) Same could be said for its stories, excessively bleak though they may be. Like so many cinematic tales of female repression—and the empowerment that may result from vanquishing it—it glowers at the inherent misogyny of a chosen society while reveling in the eventual vindication of its wronged naif. Like so many witch narratives, it is a critique of religious hysteria that sides with those who might be burned at the stake. And like so many works of erotica, it inconclusively wrestles with the twin attractions it holds toward a featured female player—carnal desire on one side, sheer awe on the other. A virtual compendium of visual artworks and historical myths that have all been coded to concern the unjust subjugation of women at the hands of overcompensating men, Belladonna of Sadness emerges as a rare jewel: a singular aesthetic vision born of elements you’ve long been familiar with.
Jeanne (voiced by Aiko Nagayama) is set to marry Jean (Katsutaka Ito), but the offering they make to their feudal lord (the value of one milk cow) fails to curry his favor (he demands 10). Director Eiichi Yamamoto—who helmed Belladonna of Sadness for Mushi Pro, one of the pioneering studios within the tradition of Japanese animation—imagines the young couple as mere blotches at the heels of their imposingly rendered autocrat. It’s an image that seems traditional of early anime, emphasizing select physical features within a roughly drawn composition. A “prima nocta” scenario is demanded; the young bride is cruelly raped on her wedding night; and that experience is depicted with a demonic surrealism—her body is literally torn, with bats pouring out of the orifice. In the grief of this flickering and unreal trauma, she slowly acquiesces to the dark lord himself, accepting a post as one of his lapdogs. He grants her the eponymous flower and immense power along with it. Jeanne’s figure eases once it has consumed this inhuman strength. Her hair turns lighter, and her skin becomes pale enough to blend in with Yamamoto’s many unanimated spaces. Granted the rare power of self-agency, she achieves the softness of a figure painted in watercolor.
That’s merely one of the forms employed in the service of depicting Jeanne’s transformative sexual experiences—most of the time the frame itself is moving across still imagery, though the movement of the characters becomes literally animated at more emphatic moments. The influence of pop-art and psychedelia reign supreme during moments of violation, heartache, and despair, with acid-rock soundtrack cuts (composed by Masahiko Sato) amplifying the uncomfortably modern intrusions. More serene moments—marked by calmer depictions of Jeanne’s beauty—take a compositional form modeled after erotic woodblock art. Humiliating trips spent among judgmental townsfolk are most often represented horizontally, as in handscroll painting, with the camera panning across the still animation from right to left. In its kinetic movement to and from all these differing artistic disciplines, the film achieves exactly what Jeanne cannot: a sense of freedom.
Given three words, you’d describe this as “erotic Japanese animation.” But “erotic” typically connotes the intention of titillation, and even at its most leering, Yamamoto’s film has priorities that outrank turning you on. Certainly the film is Japanese in origin—but it’s not set in the same nation, and the influences on its art style are explicitly international. And while the movie is “animated,” it approaches that form with an aesthetic liberty that’s rarely been paralleled. Better, then, to describe the film by its tenor: pure intensity. The sequence where Jeanne is ultimately turned away by her own husband is rendered with a litany of techniques united by their visceral impact. She is chased from the town by the grotesque close-up faces of her peers, with stones tearing away the skin at her feet and her green dress already torn to shreds. Her body seems to run in slow-motion, while impressionistic backgrounds—rushes of rough landscape rendered in blood-red—move in fast-motion behind her. Flash cuts to more literal depictions of her violation intercede for split seconds. Lucifer’s dogs give chase, seen at angles that suggest the viewpoint of a downed victim. When we return to her slow-motion sprinting—toward her own door, which has been locked shut in shame—the last shreds of the dress seem to melt off her body. And when the film cuts back to a more natural form of dialogue and movement, the effect proves almost unbearable. These traumas are such that we need them obscured.
Yamamoto picks and chooses what it is that gets obscured. The inherent contradiction is that the artwork seems to sympathize with its heroine while also fetishizing her victimization. Jeanne is scourged by the forces that have long carried out such acts—she’s bent at the hands of Church, state, peers, leaders, and by her own husband. “You are mine now—your body, your soul,” says a man; “women are always the ones left behind to suffer,” says a woman; and the very nature of visual art demands that we observe the former while processing the latter, enforcing a viewing experience that’s necessarily contradictory. And Yamamoto’s interest is with the images themselves, not the psychology behind them. Perhaps Belladonna of Sadness does not provide a profound insight into the minds of women that society has cast aside. But in seeing this narrative through so many lenses—through artistic forms old and new, through historical references both remembered and forgotten—Yamamoto does provide a profound insight into something else: the works of art our culture has created in our vain attempts to comprehend our own cruelty.
The Brattle Theatre’s Belladonna of Sadness run will kick off a series of late-Saturday-night shows that feature a relation to Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. To be specific, it’s called “Reel Weird Brattle: Through the Looking Glass, Down the Rabbit Hole,” and other films include Daisies, A Nightmare on Elm St., and Drop Dead Fred. Jeanne’s exploits are marked by visual designs and symbolic qualities that are indeed reminiscent of Alice’s journey—at the film’s midpoint the devil-conscripted Jeanne finds herself clad in green and in combat against a Red Queen. But it would be unwise to limit ourselves to one homage in thinking about Belladonna of Sadness. The film has more sources than an overwritten term paper. It cites a 19th-century text by Jules Michelet—“La Sorciere,” or “Satanism and Witchcraft”—as its origin (the text itself claims to offer an objective document of a sorcerer’s way of life). It also exists as part of a trilogy (“Animerama”) that sought to create highly erotic works of animation based on high-minded sources (the other two are A Thousand and One Nights and Cleopatra). Yamamoto’s gliding rhythm obscures the many tangled connections he weaves between Belladonna of Sadness’ many ancestors, but the film proves expansive and dense, both in retrospect and in research. It finds a finale that cosmically connects Jeanne to two other enduring figures of spiritual female strength, and its conclusion even cuts to yet another aesthetic form—an oil painting, courtesy Delacroix—to cement the links that have been created between historical narratives and art history. That final allusion carries the emotional heft of generations along with it.
BELLADONNA OF SADNESS. BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. PREMIERE SHOW ON FRI 5.13 AT 10PM. PLAYS THROUGH MON 5.16. NOT RATED. SEE BRATTLEFILM.ORG FOR OTHER SHOWTIMES.