In a recent episode of Daughters of Darkness Podcast (here), my co-host (Diabolique Associate Editor Samm Deighan) and I discussed the context and origins of Calvinist Gothic in order to analyse the subject of New England Witchcraft in film; most specifically two films: Eyes of Fire (1983) and Superstition (1982). During the process we got to talking about Robert Egger’s The Witch (2016) and why I had felt so underwhelmed by it. Claiming to be inspired by folklore, Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath and a host of spellbinding cinematic forefathers, for me, The Witch promised much, but ended up delivering so little. As I stated during the episode, one of my reasons for thinking so— as well as gorging myself on a glut of Czech folk horror the year before, for a project I was working on at the time— came from the fact I have been spoiled when it comes to feminist witchcraft themes; spoiled by my love for one film to be exact, an obscure Japanese animated feature from the seventies: Belladonna of Sadness (Kanashimi No Belladonna) (1973).
So what does a 2015 film about puritan paranoia and witchcraft have to do with an avant garde Japanese animation about pagan and daemonic magick? At first glance, apart from the obvious witchy connection, not a lot, but dig beneath the surface and the two do share a common thread— the concept of witchcraft as a gateway to “living deliciously”. What I mean by this is the notion of the Satanic figure as a romantic anti-hero, Satanism or witchcraft as a form of rebellion from the oppressive forces of Christianity in its most extreme form, and the idea that one can find freedom in giving in to those “immoral” impulses, and the selling of one’s soul in order to truly live. In The Witch Thomasina is asked “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” by Goya’s Black goat incarnate “Black Phillip”; giving the narrative a subversive slant that leans toward the triumph of “evil” over “good” born from a fusion of feminine and daemonic power over the oppressive patriarchy of Calvinist beliefs. This is an aspect that struck a chord with many viewers, and no doubt aided the film to become such a hit. Yet, while Thomasina is offered “the taste of butter” and a “nice dress”, Belladonna of Sadness’ Jeanne is invited to consume so much more, by making a similar deal: one which opens up some of the most deliciously hedonistic avenues of all— although admittedly this leads to her destruction, nevertheless the central messages are a refreshing change from the norm. It is this factor that makes Belladonna of Sadness such a unique film, one that celebrates Neopagan ideas of feminine sensuality and sexuality as a source of power in a way that isn’t often seen in the realm of cinema; thus challenging the dominant cinematic codification of the witch figure as one of feminine monstrosity, demonstrating instead that in embracing sexual awakening and her femininity Belladonna’s heroine can find a way to fight against an oppressive social order on her own terms, and is ultimately set free in the process.
Set in feudal times, the film introduces a grim world indeed. We meet Jeanne and her new husband on their wedding night, and as dictated by the Lord, the bride’s body is given to him — and not her spouse—as she is publically degraded in a hideous power ritual. This is part of a cruel game that sees the couple unable to pay the Lord a tax of several cows to the court, to preserve Jeanne’s virginity for her wedding night; the rendering of this scene is heavily stylised (as is most of the film) in surreal imagery— Jeanne’s body split in two, left to bleed as she cries out in vain, as onlookers take a sadistic glee in being privy to the spectacle. This opening statement of sexual violence sets up the main theme of the suffering of women which becomes the core of the entire story. On returning home, the husband is unable to console his new wife, instead falling into a deep sleep from utter exhaustion: thus creating an emotional distance that will fuel some of Jeanne’s later choices. Meanwhile, as Jeanne attempts to wash away the stains of corruption from her body, a small phallic shaped demon appears and declares he has always been there watching over her. If she accepts his touch, he can heal her pain. In welcoming the demon— and Jeanne’s resistance is fierce to begin with— she can obtain strength by unlocking her female sexuality and surrendering her spirit to pagan power. The creature makes several attempts at seduction; playing with her body and erogenous zones (depicted in phantasmagorical and then later, more explicit ways), making the flirtation potent and exquisitely rendered. Giving Jeanne a taste of things to come, she is granted economic achievement, in a time when the rest of the town are ravaged by the effects of famine and disease, pushed to the edge by extortionate taxes from the ruling classes, which in turn elevates her social status and relieves some of her suffering. Yet with every step forward, Jeanne attracts more suspicion and hatred from those who are starting to fear or envy her. The Lord and his wife begin to see her as a threat, and when the she is stripped, beaten and humiliated in front of the community— her husband failing to save her— she runs into the arms of her demon saviour, accepting her place as his bride. Under his protection she is granted the key that unlocks the mysteries of old magick. It is with this that she seeks to get her revenge on all those who have sought to destroy her body and spirit.
The basis for the story is taken from Jules Michelet’s 1863 The Sorceress (La Sorcière or Satanism and Witchcraft). Michelet, a Romantic historian and philosopher, wrote the book following his impressive study into French history Histoire de France (1833–67). The writer had some interesting ideas, especially when it came to women, promoting the idea of the female gender in a Romantic sense as being close to nature and therefore innocence; believing that marriages should become institutions of enlightenment, where the husband would bestow knowledge on his wife as a willing student, in order to progress her understanding of the world. However, as open-minded as this may sound, he was no feminist in traditional terms, for the basis of his work was underpinned by the motivation that women needed guidance to serve solely as good wives and mothers. While obviously problematic on some level, Michelet’s The Sorceress does bring up some interesting ideas.
Yoshiyuki Fukuda and director Eiichi Yamamoto’s script for Belladonna is influenced by a couple of substrands in a rich and meandering text that supposedly covers the history of witchcraft from medieval times, through to the witch hunts— using various narrations on black mass, demonic possession, and incidences of ritual to illustrate a point. What becomes fascinating about the book, along with the lurid descriptive accounts and emotive tone of the prose, is the writer’s stance on Catholicism and the church. There is an obvious emphasis on the cruelty inherent in feudal society, oppression through economic power— especially over the lives of women— and abuse of power by the church and its agents. Woman are carved as innocent creatures innately at one with nature, cornerstones of communities ruined by (male) greed and a corrupt religious order. These women, or witches, while capable of a cruelty and destructive nature of their own, are also able to heal with their knowledge of spellcraft and nature based medicine. The law and orthodox religion, on the other hand, is reinforced in Michelet’s words, as a tyranny that ravages and uses up the bodies of common man in order to serve the needs of a privileged few. Paganism, by contrast, can be read as a liberating act of subversion against the Church; a way for the lower classes to gain a sense of autonomy over their lives (no matter how dangerous or limited), and where women can claim a power they were not allowed under the doctrines of Christianity. As Michelet states in The Sorceress , “The Black Mass, in its primary aspect, would seem to be this redemption of Eve from the curse of Christianity had laid upon her. At the Witches Sabbath woman fulfils every office. She is priest, and altar, and consecrated host, whereof all the people communicate. In the last resort, is she not the very God of the sacrifice as well?”… He continues, “The people is enfranchised and emboldened [ by attending the spectacle of Mass]. The poor serf, free for once, is king for a few hours’ space. But his time is short; already the night is passing, the stars verging to their setting. Very soon the cruel dawn will send him back to slavery, set him once more, under the malignant eye of his taskmaster, under the shadow of his lord’s castle and that of the church”.
Belladonna of Sadness manages to keep this sentiment at its core. Jeanne is a figure of innocence, all she wants is to be a good wife; in fact it is her purity that makes her such good sport for the lord and his band of sadistic cohorts. It is her husband’s weakness and selfish self preservation that pushes her to the brink. When she does reach the breaking point she welcomes in the entire spirit of nature; evolving into a force with the capacity for pure good and pure evil: birth and death, love and cruelty are handed out in equal measure. Jeanne takes on the form of a pagan goddess, much like The Morrigan— the goddess of war and sexuality— able to take life, just as quickly as she can give and nurture it; very much the image of Mother Nature herself. As the pious veil is stripped from her eyes by the Devil, she becomes aware for the first time of the hypocrisy of her former life, drawing power and a thirst from this that fuels her passion. So she becomes Satan’s bride: able to take her revenge, but also able to deliver help and sanctity for the weak and defenseless. She is an earth mother, offering beastial orgies and resurrections of dead loved ones to the townsfolk, who are desperate for hope. She is also capable of and willing to snap the bloody necks of those who cross her, and trample them under foot. The innocent and hungry take from her, willingly, and adoration and loyalty soon follows the enchantment; making Jeanne’s revenge and ultimate enlightenment sweet but far too short when she is eventually driven to be burnt at the stake because the lord cannot bear to face a woman more powerful than himself.
What is so delightful is that there are no moral judgements made throughout the film when it comes to the idea of witchcraft (in fact the opposite, transgression is exalted). The joy of expression Jeanne finds, especially in this sexual awakening, is rendered so gloriously in the animated form it’s quite the spectacle to behold; with a full extended orgy scene a highlight in its subversive display of humans and beasts united together, flowing in a celebratory ring of beautiful perversity— a man’s cock turns into a woodpecker and starts tapping his own anus, people morph into beasts, into giant genitalia, and into one another, as the throng throbs together in the hum of orgiastic pleasure (all set to some steamy psychedelic notes), revelling in one huge bacchanalia in honour of the freeing nature of sexual expression.
Director Eiichi Yamamoto made of trilogy of X-rated animations for Mushi Productions Animerama series which included this film, A Thousand and One Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970); with Belladonna standing out as being the highlight of the trilogy made under this banner. The animation style is also markedly different to the two preceding films; making a strict departure from traditional animation techniques, instead experimenting with static paintings that have often been compared to the work of Gustav Klimt, combined with a dynamic psychedelic meshing in of vibrant modern images that pop and pulsate feverishly across the screen. Flowers melt and become female genitalia, sexual energy takes on the form of a hypnagogic flow, never quite one thing (art) or the other (pornography), but always in a dreamlike state, in an astounding display of animator Gisaburô Sugii’s artistic talent so unlike anything else you will ever see (even in his own work). The connection to Klimt becomes so fitting in the pagan context too, the perfect choice for animating the words of Michelet; Klimt’s work possessing something of a parallel in the context of Romanticism, nature and the female form, especially in his iconic pagan themed pieces Water Serpents II, Water Sprites or The Three Stages of Woman. The latter depicts The Mother, Maiden (child) and The Crone: imagery that is synonymous with modern wicca and the triquetra. It is also worth mentioning that the scene in which Jenna finally succumbs to Satan has more than a passing resemblance to Klimt’s The Kiss— albeit with a slightly darker tone.
If the provocative visuals aren’t enough to satisfy, Masahiko Sato’s sublime soundtrack rounds things off to perfection. A mixture of jazz, prog, and even folk elements, the music provides a rich backdrop for events to unfold. The title song Kanashimi No Belladonna, performed by Mayumi Tachibana, wouldn’t be out of place in a Meiko Kaji picture of the same era— the haunting ballad about the suffering plight of womanhood has a distinct Kaji-esque Urami Bushi (Female Prisoner Scorpion Grudge Song) ring. On this note, Belladonna of Sadness does share some of the dominating themes found in the Japanese seventies pinky violence cycle: rape/revenge, female oppression and struggle against patriarchy. On this level it fits into the entire spectrum of female focused films of the period, regardless of its avant garde stylisation and more surreal delivery of its central messages.
Magical and surreal, haunting and enchanting Belladonna of Sadness is a masterpiece of its time and place. A film like no other, thankfully now restored in gorgeous eye popping 4k (just in case you missed that woodpecker) Cinelicious Pics are on the way to reinstating the legacy of this fantastic piece of cult adult animation. Definitely not to be missed under any circumstances.