**Although there are spoilers here, they are meant to add an interpretation for relatability in the present.**
“The process by which the stellar goddess submits herself, to concreteness and incarnation involves her unveiling. This motif suggests the removal of old illusions and false identities that may have served in the upper world, but which count for nothing in the Netherworld. There one stands naked before the all-seeing eyes of the dark goddess. The unveiling means being stripped bare, the unveiling of the goddess to herself — undefended, open to having one’s soul searched by the eye of the Self.” – Sylvia Brinton Perera, Descent of the Goddess, p.59
Eiichi Yamamoto‘s (Astro Boy, Odin) animated classic Belladonna Of Sadness has been restored and re-released and I couldn’t be more excited. Before youtube and video piracy, the film was a legend among anime fanatics when I was growing up. I’m not sure if it was because of the erotic subject matter or because at its core, the film was ahead of its time.
A young maiden named Jeanne is brutally raped on her wedding night by a feudal lord. Her life changes completely and in her search for vengeance she is emboldened by a devil who appears to her as sprite in phallus-like form. The powers he gives her enable her to survive and rise above the anguish that was bestowed upon her. Her husband never recovers from the “trauma” of her rape though. She moves on away from him and becomes powerful, so much so, that the lord and his court fear Jeanne’s encroaching rule.
It seems weird to parse it like this: the initial rape scene is gorgeously rendered in exquisite watercolours. Jeanne is seen literally torn in two. Her body gore flies out in the form of blood red bats. She struggles in vain to get away from the lord, but his attack overpowers her and her body becomes a bleeding vessel. Eventually she escapes into a blue black haze symbolic of the despair that permeates her existence.
I’ve been reading Perera’s new-age-y self-help book Descent of the Goddess. I found it in a used book store and its lessons are born from a time when new age and self- help were a way to deal with decolonizing the sexes, especially for feminism. In the Descent, Perera attempts to frame the female recovering from depression and trauma in the myth of Inanna-Ishtar, the Sumerian Goddess of Heaven and Earth.
Inanna travels to the underworld, a place she is told she doesn’t belong, suffers, and returns via her own agency and ownership of her surroundings. Re-watching Belladonna Of Sadness while reading this text has given me an interesting perspective on it.
Let’s take for instance the little phallus-like looking devil (Tatsuya Nakadai, from Akira Kurosawa’s Ran). He appears when she is at her most despairing and offers her a transformation, one where everything that she has ever wanted could be hers. In return, she must give up her body and soul to him. The devil slithers around her and penetrates her. Her ensuing moans suggests she is awakening to something that she has been taken from her in her trauma. Afterwards, with her reawakening she ascends within the community and becomes a helper to the poor, hence become a threat to the feudal lord and his court.
The lord and his wife exile her. Her own husband, Jean, is afraid of her and bolts the door to their home keeping her out. When you think about it, with Jeanne and Jean having similar names, it’s almost as if she has to lose her husband (a part of herself she thought was necessary), in order to come fully into her own. With nowhere to go, she escapes into the wilderness. In the aridity of her desolation she offers her whole body and soul to the devil.
“Your appearance and soul excite my desire, let me become the god revenging,” the devil says. In their union, Jeanne goes through a transmogrification (for it is a revolution of the mind of sorts). The amniotic sea of watercolours becomes an erotic interplay of orgies and Jeanne engorges herself with the sensuality that exists within her and the nature that surrounds her. She is reborn as a goddess, powerful by just existing in her pure state. Curiously, the devil doesn’t reappear, and I believe it is because the devil was a part of her and has always been her. Her state as a woman, the Inanna-Ishtar in this story, is only seen as the devil to the audience and, for the story, to the feudal lord.
The lord himself, has a face of a skeleton (maybe the shell of a man?), surrounds himself with sacred imagery in crosses and robes while his right hand man is a priest. Yet both of them and his court took turns at raping Jeanne, and in turn, the whole village of its richness. Belladonna of Sadness Jeanne’s awakening(lying with the devil), becomes a statement against hierarchical and patriarchal power.
The villagers join Jeanne in her sexual exploits, often rediscovering themselves with aplomb. This further angers the feudal lord who accuses her of witchcraft. She is given an ultimatum: give up her power or face being burned at the stake. The stake in this case turns out being a cross.
Although many of the scenes are truly disturbing (this film is not for the easily offended), their rendering is with a multi-layered symbolism and intent. Although Gustav Klimt is a huge inspiration in Kuni Fukai‘s artwork for the film, it is important to note that Klimt himself was very much inspired by Japanese artwork. Klimt most kept to himself with his work and stayed out of the political framework of his time. His work with eroticism and the occult in his subjects was an extension of his love for the sensuality of women which negated the status quo and can be seen as a interweaving thread in Belladonna of Sadness. Any good look and analysis of Klimt artwork exposes the female body as revolution against the unnatural state of patriarchal hegemony.
Instead of just pure action though, this film is also utilizes panning on the static artwork. It is akin to a film essay (reminiscent of Chris Marker‘s La Jeteé). A detail that harmonizes it well with the half progressive rock and half funk inspired acid rock score by avant-garde composer Masahiko Satoh. The soundtrack is like a drug trip high without the drug. Well, the drug I guess here being the film!
If you get a chance to see Belladonna of Sadness, I highly recommend it. Just remember, it is from the seventies, however, it still has much to say about the now.