|Belladonna of Sadness. From JFilm Pow Wow (Chris MaGee).|
哀しみのベラドンナ/ La Sorcière. JP 1973. PC: Mushi Production. Original distributor: Nippon Herald Eiga. P: Tadami Watanabe. D: Eiichi Yamamoto. SC: Yoshiyuki Fukuda, Eiichi Yamamoto - based on the book La Sorcière (1862) by Jules Michelet. CIN: Shigeru Yamazaki. AN: Gisaburo Sugii. M: Masahiko Sato. Songs: Mayami Tachibana (music), Yu Aku, Asei Kobayashi (lyrics). ED: Masashi Furukawa. Narrated by: Chinatsu Nakayama. Voice C: Aiko Nagayama (Jeanne / Belladonna), Katsuyuki Ito (Jean), Masaya Takahashi (Milord), Shigako Shimegi (Milady), Tatsuya Nakadai (The Devil), Tatsuya Tashiro (Witch), Masakane Yonekura (Catholic Priest). 89 min
Viewed from a screener link.
Cinema Andorra, Animatricks, Helsinki, 24 April 2016
Eija Niskanen (Animatricks): "Jeanne and Jean are lovers in medieval Europe, during a time when feodal lords had a say in everything, including the first right for the wedding night with Jeanne. The event separates the lovers and Jeanne makes a deal with the Satan (voice-acted by Tatsuya Nakadai the well-known film actor) to form a rebel army to fight the ruler."
"The wonderfully rich animation, revealing the talent of the young Gisaburo Sugii at the beginning of his career, forms a delight for the eye with its delicate use of line and color. The 4K restoration brings a must-see classic of animation and Japanese anime finally back to the silver screen."
Animatricks: "This is a story about a young and beautiful woman, who has lived a life of hardship. She sells her soul to Satan in order to obtain the powers that enable her to lead a rebellion, but it ends tragically as she is burned at the stake. The story is set in France during medieval times, where Christianity had reached its zenith and the feudal lord was the personification of God. This story was inspired by Jules Michelet’s non-fiction book "Satanism and Witchcraft"."
AA: Hardly any good explicit erotic films exist although that genre is by far the biggest of all.
So far of the films that I have seen Eiichi Yamamoto's Japanese anime Cleopatra (1970) has been one of the exceptions. Thus I was looking forward to seeing the brand new restoration of Belladonna of Sadness, Yamamoto's next film after Cleopatra.
The film starts with a horrible jus primae noctis sequence. (Another case of a cancelled wedding night in the cinema). The young love of Jeanne and Jean is destroyed for good although they stay together.
Recovering, the crushed Jeanne is caught in the spell of the ghost of Eros which awakens in her a new life force, mightier than ever before. The ghost appears as a kind of a phallic shinto shrine. It is alive, keeps growing and shrinking and speaks in the voice of Tatsuya Nakadai. Spellbound and ravished by the ghost Jeanne transforms into a witch, a healer, a guiding spirit for the villagers.
There is a war, and the Black Death ravages in the country (in a vision that pays homage to Murnau's Faust). This is where Jeanne is needed the most because of her healing powers, including her understanding of the effects of the belladonna flower. She becomes a life-affirming spirit for the village, also arranging wonderful feasts which resemble the Roman Saturnalia or the Nordic Midsummer Night celebrations.
Based on a book of Jules Michelet, the great historian of the French Revolution, one may guess that this animation is not faithful to its letter. But it may be faithful to the spirit of Michelet. Belladonna of Sadness is a film of social indignation, about the oppression of the people in feudal, autocratic France before the Revolution. The final image of the movie is a close-up of Marianne in Eugène Delacroix's La Liberté guidant le peuple (1830).
Jeanne may be a witch but there are references in her character to Joan of Arc, Jesus Christ and Marianne. Most of all she is an incarnation of Aphrodite, of Venus, the goddess of love.
Belladonna of Sadness is a rich and fascinating work. It overflows with ideas. There is no unity of style; instead, there is a variety of eclectic and psychedelic approaches in a mix that might be called post-modern. Some of those approaches are pure kitsch. There is a fundamental gravity and a sense of tragedy. At the same time there is a hilariously irresponsible attitude to the eclecticism of the dozens of styles on display.
Much of the film is not animated at all: instead we follow a series of still drawings. On the other hand, key sequences are veritable fireworks of imaginative animation. For an animation aficionado this is a film worth revisiting, perhaps even for slow-forwarding passages or even stopping to examine amazing and outrageous images.
The historical nature of the story by no means inhibits Eiichi Yamamoto from using pop images and pop music in his movie.
As an erotic movie the grandeur of Belladonna of Sadness is based on the bold contrast of Eros and Thanatos in its Black Death and Saturnalia sequences. The sense of Eros in this movie is fundamental, volcanic, oceanic, cosmic, divine. In an important sense Jeanne is an incarnation of life itself.
Belladonna of Sadness is far from a flawless masterpiece, but it is a magical, unique and unforgettable achievement.