“This is porn,” Eiichi Yamamoto told his team of his vision for Belladonna of Sadness (1973), his pioneering work of psychedelic, avant-garde erotic animation. “It’s porn, but make it a pure love story.” This summer, Belladonna of Sadness turned fifty, and its confrontational approach to both animation and feminist filmmaking still feels cutting edge.
This particular porno, an ecstatic seventies freakout about a Medieval peasant woman who becomes a witch, is composed of a series of largely still watercolor paintings interspersed with bursts of rapid, lyrical animation. Inspired by the aesthetics of thirteenth-century tarot decks, its eclectic visual palette includes iridescent acrylics, delicate pencilwork, and, in one version of the film, a single live-action shot (given its aesthetics, the film was marketed to compete with another psychedelic classic, 1968’s Yellow Submarine). It features a score that combines experimental jazz and noise music, partly inspired by Pink Floyd and created by one of the earliest Japanese artists to use a Moog synthesizer. Belladonna is, truly, a work of art.
Belladonna is also based on French historian Jules Michelet’s strange 1862 book La Sorcière, a quasi-narrativized historical examination of the origins of European witchcraft. The film’s “pure love story,” ostensibly between two French peasants, Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama) and Jean (Katsuyuki Itô), is much more about women fighting against the violent ravages of sexism, alienation, and burgeoning capitalism than it is about genitalia, though there are plenty of those (everything is sex, except sex, etc. etc.). When it comes to sex, Jeanne’s journey is defined by her vulnerability as a woman: she is raped by her Feudal overlord and his entire court as punishment when her betrothed can’t afford her dowry, then by the Devil himself (an impishly seductive Tatsuya Nakadai). And when it comes to animation, sex itself seems to have been beside the point: “I was more interested … in power … than in the sex,” Masahiko Satoh, the film’s composer, said in a 2016 interview, “I thought of the erotic as process.” Kuni Fukai, the film’s art director, agreed. “I wasn’t thinking about the erotic when I was painting,” he laughed, “I painted even the erotic scenes as abstractions … I found the forms interesting.” This sentiment would seem at odds with a film that features near-constant graphic nudity (a single scene, a genuinely depraved plague orgy that lasts over eight minutes, features dogs copulating with humans, fish leaping from unnameable orifices, and horses riding penises the size of Mack trucks),but the film’s meditations on gender and power somehow take center stage even in, and perhaps even because of, its most creatively Bacchic sequences.
Belladonna of Sadness, much to the director’s surprise, proved most popular with a highly specific demographic: college-aged women. Yamamoto briefly contemplated cutting the pornographic scenes in deference to what he assumed would be a more sensitive audience, but to do so would have been to miss the point. The film, with its blend of erotica, violence, and anti-establishment feminist politics, established a precedent for representations of the witch as a feminist icon, laying out a nuanced case for the relationship between misogyny, capital, and religion familiar to readers of Silvia Federici and lovers of Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015) alike; it feels decades ahead of its time even as it taps into the feminist movements and visual iconography of the day.
Still, much of Belladonna’s politics are pulled directly from Michelet’s philosophical frame––here visualized as a twentieth century acid trip. The central, radical thesis of La Sorcière, (Satanism and Witchcraft in its English printings), is that the oppression of women under Christianity and Feudalism in the Middle Ages is at fault both for the existence of witches and for men and women’s suffering alike, trapping them with guilt, shame, and division: “by a monstrous perversion of ideas,” Michelet writes, “the Middle Ages regarded the flesh, in its representative, woman (accursed since Eve), as radically impure.” Drawing on historical understandings of femininity as inherently linked to nature, healing, and to the erotic body, Michelet argues that “nothing is impure but moral evil. Everything physical is pure; nothing physical can properly be … prohibited in deference to an empty idealism, or worse still a silly feeling of repulsion.” Thus, the Christian feudal system’s demonization of sex, midwifery, and natural healing created the witch by forcing women in league with the Devil, whose realm (earth, nature, the erotic) was now necessarily their own. Under this system, then, women become outlaws, and “is not Satan the outlaw of outlaws? … He gives his followers the joy and wild liberty of all free things of Nature, the rude delight of being a world apart.”
In Belladonna, Jeanne’s downfall is largely a sexual one, yet, significantly, tied to the use of rape as a tool of political and social control, forced on her by a Christian understanding of sex as sin. It’s only after she is raped as punishment for her poverty by the members of the Lord’s court that she summons the Devil, praying, “I want power! Someone help me!” The Devil appears as a delightfully literal phallus, rising from the tip of her spinning wheel (Princess Aurora’s fall came that way, too), the extension of her livelihood as a seamstress. “Who are you?” she asks him. “I am you!” he tells her, “I’ve always been with you.”
Jeanne’s deal with the Devil disrupts traditional notions of morality and horror, flipping the script on heteropatriarchy through violent abnegation. His possession of her body is depicted as its own form of parasitism; he grows larger and larger, eventually becoming a monstrous penis the size of a mountain. At this stage, her powers are economic as well as sexual, and soon she earns enough money selling cloth to the slavering townsmen that her husband, Jean, becomes the town tax collector. But participating in the noxious economic system only brings more strife, leading to his ruination when his subjects are unable to pay. Finding his own power stripped, he too rapes and beats Jeanne, drinking himself into a daily stupor. Jeanne’s alliance with the Devil is also, initially, defined by rape; there are few alternatives in a system predicated on the (literal) demonization of sexuality. Yet, that same sexual relationship is also her path to salvation. Fleeing into the woods after her husband’s betrayals, Jeanne willingly gives her soul as well as her body to Satan. “My wife,” he rumbles, “what do you want to do?” “Anything” she murmurs, floating naked, looking up through her eyelashes at his now-enormous figure, “so long as it’s bad.”
But where Jeanne thought being the Devil’s wife would turn her into a monster, she wakes to find herself even more beautiful than before: “Who says anger and hatred are ugly? You have become ... radiant. More beautiful than God,” Satan tells her, her body engulfed in stunning runs of psychedelic flowers. Temporality ruptures and the screen explodes with a cavalcade of
atemporal imagery from the Statue of Liberty to disco dancers to Apollo 11, thrusting her into the progressive flow of history. She heals the plague-riddled with belladonna flowers, both poisonous and beautiful; she invites them to orgies and eases their own sexual shame. “I want to become a horrifying woman,” she sighs to the Devil. The anger and hatred he invokes are purifying emotions: anger at her violation, hatred at her oppressors and the system that protects them. To be horrifying, then, is to be subversive, to shock and overthrow those in power. Yamamoto makes this rage manifest, masterfully rendering it with kaleidoscopic wrath and hallucinatory avant-garde exuberance.
Jeanne is eventually burned at the stake for her crimes against the state, an image that pervades witchcraft media as the ultimate form of defeat and abuse. Yet, watching her demise, the crowd of watching women begin to transform: Their faces change, each one becoming Jeanne’s own. Every woman has the power to make the same pact. “Time passed,” a title tells us, and Jeanne’s figure, fabulously, transfigures into Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), breasts bared. The erotic becomes a tool of power and liberation. With Belladonna of Sadness, the anger of horrifying, sexual women brings revolution into the present.