There are some anime so strange or screwed-up that somewhere along the line you wonder idly: what the hell am I watching? Way up there among the deranged, the sadistic, the disturbed, and that rather narrow field of animated erotic pictures that flourished in the flash of an instant in the nineteen-seventies, there is Kanashimi no Belladonna. I've seen quite a bit of weird anime - and a fair few of the stranger tripped out animated works from elsewhere in the world - but Belladonna is, well, unique.
Never mind what where they smoking - did what they smoke even exist in an objective reality? Yes, it's that sort of movie. Though with more sex.
Witchcraft in medieval Europe is our topic, but also (moreso) the sexual revolution of late sixties and early seventies. This is sex, drugs and rock'n'roll; women's rights and class warfare. Psychedelic erotica often handled with humour is here infused with the sombre sensibilities of grand opera. That really shouldn't work at all and yet it sort of does.
Belladonna also lays claim to being a feminist film with lots and lots of rape. Surprisingly this sort of works, or at any rate I think so. Others do not and they usually have good reason for saying so - this is intentionally erotic, after all. When one thinks of eroticism and rape, feminism tends not to be the next step.
Here's what it intends: the old, the sick, the depraved mores of the past are condemned in favour of the even more depraved - yet liberated - mores of the future. Sex is power and here is a woman trying to control both - she is objectified as a direct consequence.
While all that makes sense thematically it isn't that the eroticism emerges organically from the themes - more that the themes are a framework upon which to hang the sexploitation and the animated imagery. This is simply a bizarre logic that, again, only made any kind of sense in that flashpoint of the seventies.
Plot-wise, the events unfold with the inevitability of a fairy tale. The tale of our peasant woman Jeanne who goes from rape victim to goddess of the orgies is very, very loosely inspired by Joan of Arc. Well-paced even if it lacks surprises, this strange relic is never really dull.
Granted, this is decades old. Also granted, limited animation is extensively used - whole stretches of footage are just pans over still images. I would further still add that there is goofiness haven't aged that well, and some sequences that are far better in concept than execution.
However, those stills can be drawn like tapestries, ignoring spatial positions to create images of astonishing beauty. For example, a man's face is enlarged so the spears of the soldiers can bar it, or the robes of an old woman become a hillock with a single pan.
The visuals are influenced by tarot cards, Gustav Klimt (among others) and are topped off with psychedelic craziness. This feels far more like a contemporary European arthouse film than the kind of look one normally associates with anime. No other I've seen has a greater quantity of utterly gorgeous still pictures - many of them watercolour.
While the movement is crude by modern standards, it makes up for it in spades with its inspired usage: there are a couple of absurdly bizarre orgies, and, well, one of the best abstract sex scenes I've ever seen animated.
There are even moments of effectively subtle motion - one of the best animated segments of the film is Jeanne looking at herself in the mirror. Other moments are interesting more for the rapidity of their visual inventiveness - such as the piling on of a series of contemporary and pop culture infleunces during a bizarre lovemaking session - than for the actual quality of the animation.
Incidentally a lot of the actual animation may be sexual in nature, as you possibly have deduced at this point. It also goes without saying that, as quite a few of these are rapes, the imagery in this film can be pretty disturbing. Even the orgies can be uncomforting - let's just say you don't normally see sex organs looking like that or doing things like that and leave the matter be.
I don't think I can do the painterly qualities much justice through description, though those who don't care for old animation (and, obviously, strange animation) may well not like it at all. Also I'm sure there will be those who like both but just don't care for this style - it all depends how impressed you are by the artistry.
Nonetheless, the animation alone makes this something I consider worth seeing. Not all of it is genius, but enough of it is.
Seventies Japanese rock dominates the soundtrack, which works well and is pretty good to listen to in its own right. There are one or two grating pieces but I'd argue they are outweighed by the potency of, say, 'Jean to Jeanne'.
The voice cast features Tatsuya Nakadai as the devil - a live-action actor who was a regular player in the films of Akira Kurosawa. He amusedly hams it up in his dark baritone, proving that even without his roving eyes and distinctive body language he can give a memorable performance.
The rest of the cast is also quite fair; though it sometimes seems there's as much screaming and moaning as there is dialogue.
Characters tend to be symbols rather than developed individuals. Jeanne is raped and goes from a pure, dishonoured woman to a sex symbol of rebellion, but never appears as person. If we're made uncomfortable by her suffering it's because the imagery is disturbing rather than out of any sympathy for her.
The rest of the cast may be defined by gender, sex, religion and power, but never posess personality. A distance is maintained from all of them through the frequent narration, still pans, and a generally detached tone. Belladonna adopts the formalities of tragedy more than it actually expects us to be moved.
If you sincerely doubt that you'd like Belladonna at all then you're probably right. This is not for everyone and I do not mean that in any condescending way - this is sick, twisted erotica. Many would be outright repulsed and repelled at its constant abuse, and though one is seemed to be invited to find this arousing, I was consistently unnerved.
Belladonna is probably a success on its own terms, which appear to be melding art and sexploitation, but that weird hybrid is what has condemned the film to its relative though deserved obscurity. Deserved not because it's bad, but because only a handful could really relate to this peculiar blend.
All that said, there are moments that I consider both beautiful and compelling, which I've found myself watching again and again most fondly. Ambituous rather than great; few films resemble this bizarre work. Recommended for those who enjoy this sort of thing.
In medieval Europe, the peasants Jeanne and Jean are in love. But when they finally decide to marry, Jean discovers he is required to pay a tax to the baron; and having insufficient means to pay, Jeanne is raped by the baron instead. After this traumatizing event, Jeanne is drawn by the Devil into a forbidden, occult world of power and lust. Witchcraft, orgies, assaults and surrealism abound in this erotic, psychedelic arthouse film.