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.
Full list of the review series can be found on this page, 3rd post from bottom:
Yet another super artistic erotic film by Mushi Productions. As usually, Osamu Tezuka was around to help making this beauty. I must say it is GORGEOUS !
ART SECTION: 10/10 [Mon Dieu! C’est magnifique!]
Analysis: General Artwork 2/2, Character Figures 2/2, Backgrounds 2/2, Animation 2/2, Visual Effects 2/2
Ok, this may strike to you as crude if you don’t look at it for what it really is. The entire movie is made to look as a slide show half the time and as a trippy, psychedelic, a-thing-made-from-nightmares theater play the other half. So, if you have no prior experience with G.A.anime or depressing French movies, you will not really appreciate the magnificence of the whole deal. For you see, it is pure art. A thing you can easily notice in retro movies and series is that the animation feels sillier and harder to stand as years go by. Art doesn’t have this problem. It looks great no matter how old it is. Meaning, you shouldn’t think “Hey, it is old; recent series look better.” Why? Because… they don’t! I wish half of recent anime were half as artistic as this movie is.
Good animation is not just gorgeous-looking mecha or flashy explosions or even a hundred frames per second. In fact, all these play quite a minor part in the whole. Really good animation is about conveying feelings and messages through symbolisms and allusions. And boy, this movie is 100% that. Every single scene is a metaphor for personal drama, mentality, psychology, and the like. It may not make sense on a conscious level but if you are even slightly familiar with graphic arts, you will easily translate most of it in what it is all about. And boy, it was marvelous!
As I said, it doesn’t look like a Japanese production. The characters and the backgrounds look quite European. Plus, they have quite the French look in clothes and the setting is medieval France; so you get the picture… Anyway, although most of it is static images and the rest is some sort of Picasso / Dali combo, it does not give the feeling that it is bad or crude. Weird yes but definitely not bad. The camera zooms during most static pictures and the colors swap in order to depict the mood swings without having to animate anything. Plus, several details change as the story unfolds. The removal of the queen next of the duke from their picture in the second half is a good example of this.
A thing to be aware of is that almost everything in the movie looks either erotic or macabre; effectively making the movie an erotic psychological thriller. Freud and Yung would have a party over explaining all the stuff in it. Thus, you are advised NOT to watch it if you are not at least 15 years old. Lots of sex and death in it; even if it is not clearly shown half the time. If you have a woman putting a huge snake in her mouth and then shitting fish, well, it is not funny, nor fitting for little children.
So, I have no reason to give less to animation than the maximum. There is nothing I found wrong in it. Neither something I feel it could be shown better, if it ever gets a remake. Something that cannot be said about all the Gundam series and most anime in general that are basing their appeal on flashy robots and/or half naked chicks.
SOUND SECTION: 9/10 [Parle vu français?]
Analysis: Voice Acting 2/3, Music Themes 3/4, Sound Effects 3/3
It could easily be dubbed in French… Anyway, voice acting is not amazing as the voice actors take it rather easy on their work, yet the result is quite good. The music themes are sooo 60’s. Think of the kind of music the hippies were listening to in Europe at that time and you know what to expect. Plus, it gets some pseudo-ecclesiastic tones at times to give the impression of the era it takes place in. Quite the funky beats there; I liked them despite not being old enough to grow up with them. In combination with the awesome animation, the sound turns to poetry. And just like the animation, I also found nothing bad about it. Ok, maybe if it was in stereo and if the voice acting was a bit more enthusiastic but that’s just peanuts. It is great to pay attention to as the dialogues are part of the story and the music is part of the atmosphere. That’s not true with many anime, which you can easily watch in mute; as they have nothing really interesting to listen to.
STORY SECTION: 7/10 [Viva la revolution!]
Analysis: Premise 2/2, Pacing 2/2, Complexity 1/2, Plausibility 1/2, Conclusion 1/2
Although the story itself is not really complicating and the ending feels somewhat out of place, for a movie format, it feels like a lot of things happened in only 100 minutes. For you see, there is character development AND world shaking events AND a solid ending in it. So, as a movie it felt quite satisfactory.
The story is a weird alternative story of Jean D’Ark. Take out the war with England and insert a deal with the Devil to turn the world into a Hell through a Garden of Pleasures and you get the basics. I must make it clear that there is a lot of death and sex in it and it may disgust you if you don’t like such things. Also, the ending is somewhat WTF, as it feels like it shifted to an entire different theme altogether. How the hell did we jump a few centuries ahead to the French Revolution? That may leave you with a weird aftertaste. But it is original in a way, as it does not end up being just a simple, predictable story of vengeance and moral decay. I won’t tell you more, as it is a major twist you have to see for yourselves. All I can say is that most anime feel “normal” most of their duration and turn to some weird shit at the end; just to leave you with a last impression. This movie does the exact opposite!
Anyway, the story is quite good for a movie, despite feeling simple and out of place at the end.
CHARACTER SECTION: 7/10 [Belladonna … Bijin onna …]
Analysis: Presence 2/2, Personality 2/2, Backdrop 1/2, Development 1/2, Catharsis 1/2
The same things that I said about the story may apply to the cast as well. It is a character-driven story, you see. Although there are good people and bad people in it, none of them are clear-cut goodies and baddies. Plus, they are colorized in ways that easily make most anime and American movies to look like Kindergarten. The lead woman gets a hell of a character development and half a dozen others a rather decent one. It still feels a bit rushed as we are talking about a movie with restricted duration. Plus, some characters don’t exactly feel realistic in their reaction. The duke for example, acts like a generic idiot bad guy most of the time. And the ending makes you feel like something’s amiss because of the genre shift. But the cast is still quite interesting, as you really get to know them and sympathize with them thanks to the artistic animation / sound combo.
VALUE SECTION: 7/10 [Sacra bleu!]
Historical Value 1/3: Nah, too artistic to be noticed by masses.
Rewatchability 2/3: If you like art, sure; high chance.
Memorability 4/4: Definitely! It looks so special!
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 9/10 [Les Français se réjouissent!]
The only thing that I kind of didn’t enjoy was the conclusion. All the rest of the movie was pure poetry and something I hardly come by these days. Special, unique, remarkable, generally something you should watch and reconsider if your Naruto or Dragonball anime are as good as you thought they were… Ok, they’re not…
Tu n'es pas coupable! Très bien! Bravo ma cerise!
Revolutionary Girl Utena
And if you like French stuff:
The Rose of Versailles
Le Chevalier D’Eon
I was very glad to have access to this title recently as it was credited by the director (Ikuhara) of my favourite anime, Revolutionary Girl Utena as the movie that got him interested in working in animation. More recently another title (Gankutsuou) credited its visual style to that of Belladonna. Which just goes to show how impressive it is that the textures and patterns from a surreal anime such as Gankutsuou, was actually first utilised in 1973!
Influences alone, let's discuss the visuals of this title. For a 1973 title, it boasts amazing qualities. As mentioned - the textures, patterns, phycadelic colours, morphing are impressive. Much more so when one thinks that all of it is hand drawn and not computer generated, like the titles of nowadays. Considering the difficulty in producing such visuals, one has to really commend the staff on their hard work. The most interesting aspect is that they created an anime that is much more powerful when it is static, and sure many scenes are, this plays like watching a painting - a beautiful and torturous painting. The static images resonate as they are crude, violent and yet incredibly sensual. The fluidity of the style replaces the animation in many ways. Much like a painting, the eye is lead from one scene (or even a line) to another as the carema moves along the image. This title has a strong storybook look and feel which will appeal to some and not others. This did not affect my enjoyment of Belladonna at all, and based on how old this title is, I give it a 10 - it is creative, lush and incredibly well executed for a title from 1973.
The voice acting, vocal tracks and background music match the animation in the way they pack a punch. An incredibly great human performance from the cast suits the visuals and the vocal tracks sensuously drive the narrative. The mix of the visuals and vocals in this instance reminds me a lot of the last two episodes of Berserk, much lauded episodes as they take that particular title in a different direction, however the execution of those episodes made them the most artistic horror scenes of 90s anime history.
The story, much like those last two episodes of Berserk features creatures that take advantage of human's weaknesses - be it a sexual struggle, one of power, loss or greed. As with the monster of Berserk, the creatures are men, morphed with animals and different creatures; adding to a sense that the creatures are actually very much the dark side of humanity. Giving in to one's dark side is also a driving point of the title, with Jean and Jeanne being tempted to do so on many occasions. Once they make their respective choices, things become more and more allegorical, metaphoric and abstract.
The extreme dramatics in the drawing style convey what the characters feel without one needing to utter a single word (an aspect that Ikuhara borrows in his creation of Utena). When the characters do though, it makes them feel very real and as such become well rounded ones. Jeanne is especially well developed, and considering the narrative in play - one cannot blame the script writer to focus on mostly her. Other characters are also developed well, but not to the extent that Jeanne is.
While this anime was very enjoyable upon viewing, it is a difficult one to watch repeatedly as the visuals and scenario are so powerful, one needs some time to digest everything that has happened on screen. The subject matter also makes it a hard sell, or even recommendation to a friend. However, it is a worthy addition to my personal collection.
I won't review it like the rest of the titles in the Animerama series, for this is truly one title that I can call artistic and experimental and comparing, or reviewing it would seem unfair to this masterpiece in its own regard.
The movie is filled with artistic and aesthetic scenes with very little conventional animation and the animation is only used to add to the artistic medieval painting style of art which accompanies the entire movie. It adds to the metaphorical nature of the movie and tells a truly deep tale. The animation switches from being still portraits and landscapes to beautifully morphing and shifting shapes telling you a story. One might call it psychedelic.
The story itself can have quite a lot of interpretations depending upon the person who's watching it. The one theme which remains constant throughout the story is that of the oppression of the Feudal System and how the lower classes finally get upset with it and decide to revolt. But that's a very impersonal take on the entire story as this is, after all, a story about Jeanne and that theme is mostly a secondary one. Personally, I saw a woman being despised by everyone around her and turning to her own darkness and spreading it back out into the world, which did help the others realise the reality of their situation in the long run. However, that is merely my take on it and like I said, what you see in this movie depends entirely upon you.
The soundtrack in the movie, as well as the sound, is pretty good considering that it was made as an experimental film in 1974. It is also designed to add to the extremely abstract nature of the movie.
If you've liked watching titles like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Kino no Tabi, then this title is definitely for you. However, if you find them boring, this would be a waste of time for you. This anime is for those who have an imagination, an eye for art and aesthetics, and those who like to seek a deeper meaning behind what they are shown.
I'll just say that this deep and extremely metaphorical story is quite touching and the movie is essentially art in motion and not just an anime. I loved it quite a lot and would like to see more of this kind.