Belladonna of Sadness

Stolen from her betrothed, raped by the lord of the manor and his men, medieval European peasant girl Jeanne loses her faith in God and turns to the Devil. Cast out by the baron’s jealous wife, she embraces witchcraft and leads a peasant rebellion. That, at least, is the basic plot of Eiichi Yamamoto’s surreal 1973 arthouse epic Belladonna of Sadness, a box office disaster in its native Japan that has become something of an anime legend.

The anime market was founded on a bunch of lies. In the hope of scaring off early competitors, Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka had misled his clients about the cost of making cartoons, assuring them that they were cheaper than kids’ puppet shows. This was not true at all, but in the mid-1960s, animation was such a booming market that there was always more money coming in. Tezuka started kiting the serials at his studio, Mushi Pro, using the advance money from one to pay for another, shambling through the decade in the constant hope of big advertising contracts or some huge foreign rights sale. By the end of the decade, he had burned all his bridges in television, and was determined to escape into the cinema market. His answer: erotica.

Figuring that there were more adults than children to buy tickets, and trusting rather sweetly in the arthouse leanings of grown-up cinema-goers, Tezuka backed a trilogy of animated movies – the Arabian-themed sex comedy 1001 Nights, the bawdy time-travel epic Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, and for a grand finale, the erotic tragedy Belladonna of Sadness, based on La Sorcière by Jules Michelet.

Animator Eiichi Yamamoto helmed all three, and wrote in his memoirs of the fury he felt as Tezuka’s karma caught up with him. Still strapped for cash, Tezuka ram-raided the Cleopatra budget to pay for 1001 Nights. Stuck with a shortfall, he lifted the budget from Belladonna to fund Cleopatra. But neither film was a soaring success, leaving hardly anything in the kitty for Belladonna. Gritting his teeth, Yamamoto went full-on, over-the-top arthouse.

Belladonna was mental. It was less a cartoon than a montage of paintings, leavened with abstract imagery and mere moments of animation. Critics would go on to deride it as a “patchwork” film, or “inanimate animation”. The animator Gisaburo Sugii had a different perspective, arguing that it was a white elephant caused by the artistic pretensions of Yamamoto, which Tezuka indulged because he wanted the director to sign up for 1001 Nights and Cleopatra. Although those films are remembered as “Tezuka films,” it was Yamamoto who did all the heavy lifting, while the famous creator spent far more time at the helm of his foundering company, often trying to draw his way out of trouble by dashing off dozens of manga shorts.

“To be precise,” Sugii said in a Japanese interview, “Mushi Pro was finished with Belladonna in some sense. It was the collapse.” Yamamoto found out for himself when he turned up at the studio to find that he had a new boss – Tezuka had been somehow shunted out of the boss’s chair, and his former office manager, a colourful character called Yoshinobu Nishizaki, proclaimed that he was in charge.

Belladonna was certainly the end for Mushi Pro, which stumbled into bankruptcy after its predictable failure at the box office. It also marked the end of anime erotica, which went into a generation-long hiatus until the rise of the video player brought it into private homes in the 1980s. But its legacy lived on. Yamamoto was utterly baffled a few months later when word drifted in that his forgotten flop had received an ovation at a German film festival. A recut version had played up the Joan of Arc storyline as an angry feminist polemic, finishing with a still of Eugene Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People. If you were on the right substances, it was suggested, Belladonna was a hallucinatory tour-de-force – a bitter storybook commentary on medieval oppression, like some sexed-up Jackanory. Was it anime heaven, or some terrible, underfunded film-turkey hell? Anime critics have been arguing about it ever since.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #21, 2017.