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Belladonna of Sadness
Courtesy of Cinelicious Pics and Mushi Production

The violent Japanese witchcraft anime coming back to life

Belladonna of Sadness is an experimental rape-revenge jazz musical anime that proved a commercial failure and shut down the production company – now it’s being re-released

If you haven’t seen Belladonna of Sadness, it’s hard to believe it even exists. On paper, it looks like a cruel joke or a satire of first-year film student wankery: An experimental rape-revenge jazz musical anime so psychedelic it makes The Yellow Submarine look like Steamboat Willie? A deal with Satan in exchange for sexual liberation and magic powers literally powered by patriarchal decay? So infested with phallic symbols (some subliminal, some…less so) it puts a high school bathroom wall to shame? Yet it is not only an utterly hypnotic and transgressive masterpiece of adult animation, but one very evocative of the feminist zeitgeist right now. Directed by Japanese director Eiichi Yamamoto,

Directed by Japanese director Eiichi Yamamoto, Belladonna is a very loose adaptation of a 19th-century French history book called Satanism and Witchcraft, which portrays medieval witchcraft sympathetically as a woman-led underground rebellion against the feudal system and the Catholic Church. The film opens with the narrator’s saccharine warble and peasants Jean and Jeanne, “smiled upon by God”, have just gotten married and are deeply in love. But when they ask for their lord’s blessing, he casts Jean out and subjects Jeanne to a village-wide gang rape. Traumatized and shunned by her husband, she wishes for revenge and power, which she achieves by forming a pact with Satan. Orgies and ultraviolence ensue.

All of this is rendered in avant-garde animation techniques and trippy watercolour inspired by Gustav Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley. But gorgeous as it is, Belladonna, it seemed, was too much even for sexploitation-saturated 70s Japan (not to mention the rest of the world), and the film became a commercial failure that killed its production company. Because of this, the film was not officially released in the United States until this May thanks to a restoration by Cinelicious Pics, and accompanied by a companion art book released on August 23rd by Hat and Beard Press. Although not without its flaws (its fixation on beauty as good, its rather ham-handed symbolism, its bizarre lulls of paternalism), Belladonna is a captivating film with rebellious portrayals of female empowerment and sexual violence that remain spot-on today.

From Morgan Le Fay to The Crucible, witchcraft has always doubled as a sexy pop cultural shorthand for female empowerment. But sometime in the past few years, it made a Faustian bargain with white feminism and was reborn as the ultimate “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. Witchcraft now joins sad girl memes and mugs of Fuccboi Tears as endlessly regrammable artillery for punch-clock, performative liberation. Crystals, sage, and tarot cards have gone where self-care goes to die: Goop.

It’s not hard to see why. Witchcraft’s aesthetic makes it prime for co-option by “marketplace feminism.” With alienation the new black and black the new pink (at least on Wednesdays), the topical outfits of The Craft means it girls can flirt with outsider edge without slumming it. Covens appeal to Buzzfeed quiz-accredited “bad bitches” who dislike the Taylor Swift blemish of #girlsquad but find #girlgang too ripe for accusations of cultural appropriation. And the Salem witch trials and the Spanish Inquisition lend it all the untouchable reverence of solidarity and homage. Witchcraft, in short, has been sanitised, flayed, and de-boned by the mainstream into an automatic gesture of girl power.

Belladonna’s portrayal of witchcraft as female liberation is far more nuanced and thus far more subversive than a blind embrace of feminist branding. Desperation forces Jeanne to seek help from the devil, who appears as an adorable, penis-shaped pixie who teaches her the pleasures of her own body. But he coerces her into giving him her body and soul in exchange for power and sexual awakening, and the more she gives, the bigger he grows. Having given him control over half of herself, she uses her power for financial independence, and is punished for it by an angry mob. When she gives the devil full control, she ends up being a Black Plague-healing, orgy-throwing soul mule for him, even as she syphons the power of the villagers with her sexuality. When she seeks autonomy again by asking the lord of the village for control over “everything” in exchange for her devil-given knowledge, she suffers again for her hubris — permanently.

“Jeanne would be a “bad victim” by today’s standards — flaunting her sexuality after her attack, using her sexuality to gain power and manipulate. The film, of course, never uses this to shift the blame”

Belladonna, like most witch-themed allegories for female empowerment, does not make the mistake of simplifying witchcraft into an inherently positive act of liberation. Robert Eggers’ 2015 feminist breakout hit The VVitch forces main character Thomasin into a bittersweet version of empowerment — she gains independence from her toxic, Puritanical family, but only out of necessity and as a member of the witch tribe who terrorized her family. Even girls’ night favorite The Craft makes it clear that fucking with power that isn’t yours comes at an expense. These films all share the common refrain that women can and do make shitty life decisions and Faustian bargains that ruin relationships for the pursuit of power, in ways other women may disapprove of, but they still remain sympathetic. Just like the selfish asshole who nevertheless excels at his job thus excusing his shitty behavior trope that TV shows like The Knick and Mad Men have milked for so long.

Far more feminist as well is its portrayal of rape and more importantly, the aftermath. 2016 headlines and comment sections are dominated by two concurrent debates surrounding rape—the use of rape as drama in fiction and the perfect victim. A lot of male-helmed TV shows, Game of Thrones being the most egregious, use the rape of female characters as an easy backstory. Game of Thrones in particular loves it as a shortcut for instant emotion — instant sympathy for the villainess, instant coming-of-age of a heroine unaware of her own sexuality, instant emotional depth for a male character forced to watch. Critics recently confronted HBO’s programming chief about the network’s gender imbalance in portrayals of sexual violence, but it’s less of a numbers issue than the way a lot of male writers handle rape—lazily, condescendingly, voyeuristically. As a way to pat themselves on the back for portraying such a black-and-white, unambiguous rape case even as real life victims face disbelief and blame for not acting the “perfect victim.” Emma Sulkowicz, for example, who has been accused of lying for messaging her alleged rapist after and for making a sex tape as performance art. Amber Heard, for another, who has been called a gold-digging opportunist since the day she accused Johnny Depp of physical abuse.

Belladonna, though an erotic film, saves the eroticism for Jeanne’s sexual liberation. The rape scenes are visceral and nightmarish — a gory rip through the entire length of her body that becomes a writhing mass of blood-red bats. She’s never objectified as damaged but humanised as hurt, resentful, and vengeful. And strikingly, Jeanne would be a “bad victim” by today’s standards — flaunting her sexuality after her attack, wishing to do “bad” things, using her sexuality to gain power and manipulate. The film, of course, never uses this to shift the blame for her attack as society might were Jeanne a real woman.

Although 1970 marked the beginning of Japan’s women liberation movement, Belladonna of Sadness was far too ahead of its time. But it may be just right for ours.