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Rose-colored glasses and watercolor

On a whim,  I watched an old anime film today due to a certain itch. The said film was released in 1973–the year after Go Nagai‘s legendary mecha anime Mazinger Z was shown on Japanese TV; coming off the heels of Mitsuteru Yokoyama‘s Tetsujin 28-go. During this time, the industry wasn’t as booming as today, with a slew of Super Robot shows churned out by Sunrise (they were still known as Nippon Sunrise back then) and some other shows by Toei filling the airwaves. There was still no GhibliMiyazaki and Takahata were still known for the Lupin III anime series; there still was no Mobile Suit Gundam. Osamu Tezuka was busy putting out work after work after work, Nagai as well. Manga during this period saw the rise of the gekiga: gritty adult-themed manga telling dramatic stories of Japanese life and other things. Pioneered by the likes of Sanpei Shirato and Yoshihiro Tatsumi, this genre of storytelling lasted until the late 90s. Personally I thought that the range of anime during this specific timeframe was limited. Just goes to show how little I really know.

I actually put off watching this film for who knows how long. Part of it was due to lack of interest maybe, and part of it was also lack of knowledge about the people behind it. However, as clueless as I am on the nature of the industry during this era, I decided to dive into it today. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. This was something extraordinary–not quite a masterpiece, but an exquisitely produced piece of work regardless.

Belladonna of Sadness (Kanashimi no Belladonna) was the third part of the Animerama trilogy produced by Tezuka’s own Mushi Productions, following The 1001 Nights and Cleopatra. Belladonna was the only film out of the three not to have been written and directed by Tezuka himself. But even without the legendary master at the helm–Tezuka left Mushi Pro in 1971 to focus on manga–the film still is a strong testament to the capabilities of the medium of animation even despite the relatively low technology creators had at their disposal. Some of the staff involved in the film also had a hand in other great classic pieces of animation–at least those I can recognize anyway. I myself have not watched the prior two films in the trilogy, but I’m planning to check them out soon. Belladonna was also an adaptation of  La Sorciere, an 1862 novelized history of Satanism and Witchcraft in the late Middle Ages, written by Frenchman Jules Michelet.

Of the said staff involved in the film, I’m only sure of Osamu Dezaki. He was a very prolific animator and director back in the 70s, credited for his work on classic anime adaptations such as Chiba Tetsuya’s Ashita no Joe and Buichi Terasawa’s original Space Adventure Cobra TV series. Dezaki was also at the helm of a few classic shojo series back then, namely the iconic Rose of Versailles, also Oniisama E… and Ace wo Nerae–which Hideaki Anno and the guys at Gainax would parody later on in their own OVA series Gunbuster. Here in Belladonna he was credited for key animation, but my untrained eye can’t spot his work here. Dezaki was also part of the original founders of Madhouse, but my memory could be failing me.

Another noteworthy person in the project is Gisaburo Sugii, who was in charge of the original 1963 Astro Boy series. Another classic shoujo series was produced under him, Glass Mask. But perhaps he is most remembered for his movie Night on the Galactic Railroad, which supposedly inspired Leiji Matsumoto’s own Galaxy Express 999. In Belladonna he was credited as the animation director. Eiichi Yamamoto returns for another directorial spot in Sadness, after his work on the second film in the Animerama trilogy, Cleopatra. Yamamoto was also involved in past Mushi Pro series, namely Jungle Emperor Leo.

Perhaps the most surprising mention I’ve seen in the credits would be Seiichi Hayashi. I never would have thought he would also be working on animation in the past, as I only recognize him as the author of the manga Red Colored Elegy, which has earned a lot of high acclaim since. As it turns out, he was mentioned as one of the animation assistants in this film, and was also director of the Elegy OVA which I didn’t know even existed. Recently I found he was also an animator in Kihachiro Kawamoto’s Winter Days film, and I haven’t heard of him since then.

Moving on, Belladonna of Sadness really is a strong film, both in terms of visual production and narrative. It is an artsy film, relying on striking visuals to enhance the effects of the narrative, and to incite in the viewers a sense of wonder. However, it doesn’t completely avoid the problems commonly faced by this type of film. The film isn’t easily accessible, and the art and animation at times detract from the progression of the story. Despite that, Belladonna still is a relevant piece of animation, even during the relatively different climate of the industry these days.

Breaking down the film, I hope this would be a good enough rundown of the whole movie.

Art – Perhaps this is the strongest aspect of the whole production, if not the whole trilogy. This anime is set to beautiful backgrounds done in watercolor, and the art fits the situations presented in the film almost perfectly. While there is hardly any movement in terms of technical animation, it makes up for that using its gorgeous art design. And, whatever movement exists is done well, with just enough technique and style to enhance the art. The story of the film is told mostly by pans over interlaced stylish still frames. Complicated it may seem at first glance, the sheer beauty of the structure of the layouts actually doesn’t hinder viewers from understanding what the film tries to put across. They are all positioned simply enough to help people get what it says, apart from the narration. In a sense, it avoids the common pitfall of having the visuals overpower the narration, making an otherwise simple story needlessly muddled and complicated.

The character designs in this film are also quite praiseworthy. Jeanne, the titular Belladonna, totally reminds me of the old Hollywood leading ladies in her design. She looks very classy, and her overall look exudes a sense of nobility. I was happy to see this, as the common designs of anime characters in general certainly do not fit here. The other characters are ugly, but in a good, realistic way. Design-wise, they are realistically drawn. The drama therefore comes off very convincingly–the Baron gives off an aura of dread and a tyrannical nature; the Mistress an elegantly terrible strictness, and Jean a wretched and pitiful form.

The eccentric visuals also heighten the already high level of eroticism the narrative contains. Numerous shots of very symbolic artworks litter the screen from time to time, and not only do they come off as superbly artsy, but they also achieve a very visible and tasteful feeling of sexuality and eroticism. Sex scenes are abound in the film, and some of the scenes remind me Yuasa’s own work on Mind Game/Kemonozume–except Belladonna pulls them off with a much more creative and artistic flair. It pulls off sexual symbolisms quite impressively.

In the animation front, the film is also very impressive. The effects were beautifully crafted, and the character movement is also well-made. The moving parts seamlessly mesh with the expressionistic art, expertly taking advantage of animation’s ability to portray form and motion in interesting ways. One part I especially liked was the forest scene, where Jeanne makes her ultimate decision. The whole scene in the snowy mountains until the aftermath was well done. The ever-changing pastel background effects in the aftermath was gorgeous. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen during that sequence. The ending scenes were also marvelous; the fire effects were solid–just with enough style to give off an artsy flair. I just wish I could name who did what bit.

Sometimes, however, the montages of weird, eccentric symbolisms and art detract from the whole narrative. I felt that some of them ran for a few minutes too long, hindering my enjoyment of the whole thing, if only for a bit. What was supposed to be only an hour and thirty minute long film felt like it was tacked on an extra hour or two. Looking at the whole weird watercolored backgrounds were fun, but some shots felt old after a while. It’s quite common problem in these kinds of films, and it’s sad to see an otherwise masterful film fall prey to the same faults.

Story – Belladonna of Sadness tells a story about a woman, in the film called Jeanne, actively pursuing her happiness by marrying the man she loves, called Jean in the film. I wouldn’t know the exactness of the adaptation from the novel, as I haven’t read it. In any case, I’d only be talking about my impressions of the film. Anyway, Jean and Jeanne run into a bit of trouble with the governing persons in their village–the Baron and the Mistress. Being poor, Jean could not pay the tremendous tax the Baron imposes on him for his marriage to Jeanne to be recognized. To complicate matters, the Mistress compounds the problem even further, by having Jeanne be raped during a banquet guised as a celebration. Eventually this splits the once happy couple apart, and the rest of the film deals with Jeanne awakening her hidden lustfulness, and going down the path of withcraft.

Jeanne’s descent into witch-hood is told through a series of montages, involving sexually charged imagery. In the film she meets the Devil, who is less a mythical figure than a purely internal manifestation–something that is brought out of a person by severe hardships. The Devil isn’t strictly the devil people commonly imagine, and only the temptations he brings root him in myth. His attempts at provoking Jeanne into finally becoming a witch can be taken both ways, both literally and metaphorically. He may also be the coping mechanism Jeanne resorts to after suffering so much.

Selling one’s soul to the devil is detailed in the film as an elaborate process, but metaphorically it speaks of liberating oneself. Jeanne liberates herself from the shackles that bound her, and the people around her–the Baron’s oppressive rule, lust hidden away through a noble exterior, and an inquisitiveness to the nature of people and the world around her. This is shown many times in the film, but it is encapsulated in the latter stages of the movie. Jeanne establishes a communion with nature, and uses her knowledge to help the townspeople, much to the chagrin of the Baron.

The film itself is full of symbolisms, much of them sexual. Its narrative takes and uses them to progress the story in a radical manner. This approach to art and storytelling surely was rare back then. Supposedly the film was geared to expand the medium of animation to older and more mature audiences–together with the previous two Animerama films. And I would say it succeeded, although Mushi Pro went bankrupt a few months after Belladonna.

Belladonna gives off strong feminist vibes, but in my view it is more than a feminist film. I would say it is more of a human story about the tough times in the Medieval period–especially considering the source material. While it attempts to defend the rights of the woman, in this case Jeanne, it is also simultaneously a commentary on the limits of their society. The liberation of sexual libido (which is arguably the facet of the story given the most focus), the independence of the human spirit, a symbiotic relationship with nature and the innate human inquisitiveness–while highly valued today–only gets released in the film via a deal with the very personification of evil itself. In the end these things all lead into Jeanne being labeled as a witch, before and after she exacts a measure of revenge on the ones who wronged her.

Becoming a witch here in the story isn’t about gaining supernatural powers, but rather a move towards going outside the conventions of Medieval society. In a sense, the movie succeeds in that department.

The only problem I can find with this is its accessibility, even if that is already a common problem with artsy films. Even if the story itself is very simple and easy to grasp, the visuals and the methods of storytelling present viewers with difficulty getting into the swing of things. The film itself is a great piece of work, but sadly only fans of such stories and presentations would readily get into it, leaving ordinary viewers in a daze and confused.

Characters – Aside from the story and art of Sadness, I feel that the characters themselves are memorable. While some of their actions can come off as cliche and predictable, they still are interesting enough to warrant paying attention to. The villains are stereotypically evil, and Jeanne at first is a typical good girl. All things considered, Belladonna’s characters are innately interesting despite the cookie-cutter personalities.

Character development in the film is also well-crafted. Jeanne isn’t the only one descending into madness, but Jean is also ensnared by the anguish brought about by their suffering. His ascent from being a lowly peasant to a high ranking noble through Jeanne’s help is believable at least, and the reversal of his fortunes even more so. In the end he receives rightful retribution for everything he did.

The Baron and the Mistress themselves embody the stereotypical evil villain, but they’re still memorable. Their designs could have a hand in that. The Baron is the source of all Jean and Jeanne’s grief, aided by the Mistress. They remain what they are until the end, but the Mistress gets what she deserves in the end. I find it funny that only the female villain gets her comeuppance; perhaps it could be one of the film’s moments of misogyny.

Jeanne, though, shines brightest among all of them. Her transformation from a sweet and loving wife into a worldly and seductive witch is pulled off effectively. She keeps to her nature even through undergoing her change, harboring the feelings she has for her husband until the end. Jeanne displays a strength of will despite all her suffering, and throughout the Devil’s advances. Even with the Devil eventually succeeding, Jeanne’s character isn’t necessarily destroyed, rather it keeps to her original nature–just with the added sexuality and worldly knowledge. She doesn’t turn evil at all, contrary to what the film says.

Verdict – Belladonna of Sadness is  a very exquisite film, a radical approach to animation in both design and storytelling rarely seen in its time. Anime was still in its growing stages at this point, but the film, no, the entire Animerama series I should say, was a needed jolt to show people the true range and capabilities of the medium. Though it led to Mushi Pro’s bankruptcy, I say some of the film’s methods and stylistic approaches were carried over to today’s era, however rare those said products are.

Sadly, the film could only be appreciated by fans of quirky and strange pieces of animation–just as it was back then. I would still suggest at least giving this a shot, as it is an excellent artistic work. Not necessarily a masterpiece–there are better films than this–but still a wonderfully put-together production that deserves at least third looks. Watching a unique anime once in a while could only be a good thing.

Anime is a very diverse medium of art, and Belladonna of Sadness is just one of those anime that define that statement.

*In my very first post, I posted links to popular manga/anime resources, but I’d like to refrain from that now. After all, if you’ve watched more than a handful of anime or read more than a handful of manga, you would know where to look.


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