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.

2011: The Year in Anime Books

For the last few years, it has been my mission to read through as many Japanese books about anime as possible, with special concentration on personal testimonies from the animators themselves. And I have been annotating as I go. For some reason, many of the people who write books about anime are allergic to indices, so I have been writing my own, of dozens upon dozens of memoirs and biographies, in order to build up a picture of the way the anime business looks to the people who actually work in it. The concordance is currently at 230 typed pages, although I think it will hit 300 before I am done. The work has functioned as a sort of audit of what people think they know about the business they work in, and has allowed me to chart several memes and misconceptions from their birth through to their establishment as industry lore.

And so my neck-deep wade through Japanese-language books on anime has continued, most recently with the NTT collection of scholarly essays Anime in Transition (or Anime Across Borders? or Anime Transnational?). The book is something of a landmark, forming an entire volume of the eight-part Japanese Film is Alive series from Iwanami Shoten, and hence perhaps redeeming anime as just as reasonable a field of study as, say, documentary, performance or audience. Notably, however, five of the eleven chapters in the book are written by foreign authors, with the likes of Marc Steinberg, Thomas Lamarre and Hu Tze-yue providing commentary and perspectives that the Japanese seem unwilling or unable to provide themselves. Is Japanese academia on animation really that lacking in local heroes, or is this a form of auto-orientalism, with the Japanese lapping up foreign attention as a means of validating their own interests in such an unlikely, unloved field as animation studies?

I’d believe it if NTT Shuppan had not answered within the year with an all-Japanese collection. There is no question about the anime book of the year 2011 — that award surely goes to Anime Studies, edited by Mitsuteru Takahashi and the omnipresent Nobuyuki Tsugata. Anime Studies contains ten chapters of detailed commentary on many interesting areas in the anime field, including education, intellectual property and national animation policy. The authors include academics, but also producers and directors, most notably with a chunky section from Ryosuke Takahashi about Tezuka’s anime “revolution”. Anime Studies is the book to which I wish every Western scholar had access, laden with charts and diagrams explaining the way that modern anime works, but also with informed references to peripheral areas, and, that greatest rarity in books on anime, a functional index.

Anime directors continued to be feted with studies and analysis, notably in books about Kenji Kamiyama and the journeyman director Keiichi Hara, now enjoying a new-found fame thanks to his breakout feature Colorful. This has also been a good year for books that analyse anime from the perspective of a producer or manager. Six years after he penned a guide to the anime business, Hiromichi Masuda writes an all-new account of the same subject, incorporating the wild ride of changes since the 2006 production peak. Meanwhile, Kinema Junpo jumps on the bandwagon with books on the below-the-line squabbles that get anime made in the first place including How to Make a Hit “Mundane” Anime and On the Job of the Anime Producer. Meanwhile, Yuichiro Oguro publishes the long-awaited second volume of his Anime Creator Interviews, collating material originally run in Animage at the beginning of the last decade.

You’ll notice, perhaps, that many of the books have dully typographical covers. In a country where Japanese studios will often charge magazines even for illustrations used to accompany rave reviews, the studios are often their own worst enemies when it comes to picture sourcing. I am pleased to note that the current crop of Japanese academics and scholars have simply given up playing the studios’ game, and instead published the texts that they want to publish, without bending over for outrageous fees or assenting to textual tampering — here’s a hello to the idiot who tried to get us to lie about the production details of his company’s movie in the Anime Encyclopedia, and who tried to use image access as the lure to make us cooperate. Anime is, assuredly, a visual medium, but I would much rather have good books published without pictures than see compromised picture-books, defanged of all their interesting content.

There is still a good deal of pretension awash in the anime field. Ani Kuri 15 DVD x Material is an infuriatingly packaged book of interviews and storyboards from the short series of NHK commercials made to order by creatives including the late Satoshi Kon, as well as Yasufumi Soejima and Shinji Kimura. Which is all very well, but it comes with a tight yet flimsy paper wraparound that is sure to tear after a single use, and includes an origami robot by way of apology.

Other books I’ve read this year have included Yuka Minakawa’s two-volume account of the “rise and fall” of Tezuka’s Mushi Production, although the fall is bundled into the final few pages. Like Eiichi Yamamoto’s much-cited 1989 Rise & Fall of Mushi Pro, the book is presented in fictionalised form, although Minakawa presents detailed references, usually to DVD sleeve-note interviews and other ephemera that might elude the more traditional scholar. I also found much of interest in Makoto Misono’s 1999 Complete Book of TV Animation, a forerunner of the Anime Studies collection that diligently attempted to create an institutional memory for television cartoons more than a decade ago. I think I bought it when working on the first edition of the Anime Encyclopedia, but I haven’t properly gone through it till now. I also stumbled across Masaki Tsuji’s long out-of-print The Youth of TV Anime, a memoir of the 1960s and 1970s by the scriptwriter of, among other things, Astro Boy, Star of the Giants and Sazae-san. It’s the last that interests me in particular, since the studio that made Sazae-san has never really had to try since. Go on: see if you can name it without opening a book or another window. It’s not all that famous, despite making Japan’s highest-rated and longest-running cartoon. Whereas other studios have to push and flash and bluster to get attention, the studio that makes Sazae-san just motors along on a job that is essentially below-the-line… certainly below the notice of many foreign fans.

In this periodic round-up, which I have previously run in 2010 and 2009, it’s usually my habit to talk about the English-language books on anime that come my way. In many cases this year, I have already reviewed them elsewhere, such as this piece on the excellent Ladd and Deneroff memoir of early anime in America. I’ve also written a glowing review of Iwao Takamoto’s autobiography, but that won’t appear until later in 2012. In others, I simply haven’t got round to them, since the Japanese-language books are prioritised ahead of them. In a couple of others, I have read them, although they were so awful that I cannot bring myself to even name them. One was an academic account so up itself as to be entirely impenetrable, including an interview with a Japanese creator who actually tells the author to piss off and talk to someone else. The other was a seemingly self-published witter about divinity in anime, by a man who couldn’t even spell Wikipedia, even as he cited it.

2010: The Year in Anime Books

After so many positive responses to the round-up of anime reading last year, I thought I would continue with a brief precis of some of the anime books I have encountered in the ensuing twelve months.

Largely overlooked in Anglophone anime studies was Hu Tze-yue’s Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-Building from Hong Kong University Press. For those who have read Hu’s essay on Hakujaden in the journal Animation, this is more of the same, extending her conclusions out of the Toei era and into the careers of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Meanwhile, Toshie Takahashi made a valuable contribution to studies of TV in general with Audience Studies: A Japanese Perspective, which has given me some great ideas about the history of early anime on television. Andrew Osmond placed anime in an international context with his 100 Animated Feature Films for the British Film Insititute. Phaidon’s Manga Impact was actually a book about anime, which says it all.

There were two excellent articles on Grave of the Fireflies and Space Cruiser Yamato, to be found in Stahl and Williams’ Imag(in)ing the War in Japan: Representing and Responding to Trauma in Postwar Literature and Film. This year I also caught up with Ian Condry’s 2009 essay ‘Anime Creativity: Characters and Premises in the Quest for Cool Japan’ in Theory, Culture & Society, worth noting here because it seems to be a fragment of a book-length work in progress. The same issue included Marc Steinberg’s ‘Anytime, Anywhere: Tetsuwan Atomu Stickers and the Emergence of Character Merchandizing,’ continuing to ensure that the Astro Boy era is one of the best documented in anime studies. Mechademia put out another strong volume. Oh, and Schoolgirl Milky Crisis came out on the Kindle.

The 2006 Clements and McCarthy Anime Encyclopedia remains the largest and most comprehensive book in English about Japanese animation. However, if you can read Japanese, there is now an even bigger tome to bend your shelves, the 1000-page Stingray/Nichigai Associates Dictionary of Animation Works: the biggest book ever written on the subject. It’s an odd work with rather short entries, omitting running times, for example, and concentrating instead on the origins of the anime discussed. This makes it an indispensable resource for anyone documenting the source material from which anime is made, as it lists the Japanese editions of Moomin books, the Bible and obscure children’s classics. It also covers non-Japanese animation, with a total of over 6000 little entries. But I can’t help wishing that it spent more time discussing the anime themselves, rather than vast bibliographies of the books related to them — a massive multi-volume list, for example, of Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights translation, in order to point to the origins of Tezuka’s 1001 Nights. Still, very handy, even at the astronomical cover price of $175.

In Japan, this year has been quiet in terms of big new books on the anime industry, although Toshio Okada got in just under the wire with his new warts-and-all memoir, Testament. This year, I have instead been reading many older books on anime history, including memoirs by Shinichi Suzuki, Yasuo Otsuka, Ryuichi Yokoyama, Tadahito Mochinaga, and Yoshiyuki Tomino. Meatiest among them was Eiichi Yamamoto’s tell-all confessional, The Rise and Fall of Mushi Pro (1989). Written as Tezuka lay dying, it is a detailed analysis of the period from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, from the beginning of production on Tales from a Street Corner, up to the collapse of the studio in the wake of Tragedy of Belladonna. One wonders, perhaps, if now that Yoshinobu Nishizaki is dead, Yamamoto will write a sequel about the troubled 1970s in the anime world, during which he worked for Nishizaki on the Yamato series.

I also found much of interest in Nobuyuki Tsugata’s 2007 study Japan’s First Animation Creator: Kitayama Seitar?, a book which pieces together vital pieces of the anime puzzle from the 1920s and 1930s. Tsugata is the best author in the world on anime history matters, and this book is an amazing detective story. So little early animation survives that Tsugata has to piece together Kitayama’s career from old magazine articles, wall charts enhanced and enlarged from the background of staff photographs, and odd sources such as the proceedings of the Federation of Japanese Dentists.

In the interests of leaving better testimonials for the Tsugatas of the future, the Madhouse studio continues to preserve production details and interviews of its newest films in its own rather pricey series. The Plus Madhouse series of creator-specific books have proved to be a mixed bag. Some, such as the volume on Rintaro (Shigeyuki Hayashi), fill in vital historical and personal gaps in our knowledge of the industry. Others… don’t, and risk diluting the brand by becoming little more than puff pieces for someone’s latest film.