‘Belladonna of Sadness’ and the problem of portraying rape

One of the problems a movie industry dominated by men struggles with is the topic of rape. April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month first declared by President Barack Obama in 2009. You probably didn’t hear much about it because it’s a topic many people prefer not to discuss. “Belladonna of Sadness” (哀しみのベラドンナ) is a Japanese animated feature film produced in 1973 when it was given a limited release in the U.S. A digital restoration is being released nationwide this month. In Los Angeles, the film is screening at The Cinefamily from May 13-19.

It’s more of a curiosity than a film worth recommending. Belladonna is another name for the deadly nightshade. There is, of course, a reason the plant is called deadly. Although the perennial herbaceous plant (rhizomatous hemicryptophyte) is poisonous, it was once as a medicine, a cosmetic and a poison. The name means “beautiful woman” in Italian and the herb was made into eyedrops that dilated the pupils of the eyes, something that naturally happens when one is strongly aroused sexually. Mimicking sexual arousal made women appear beautiful and thus the name. The Japanese title uses the word for the plant instead of the Japanese word for beautiful woman, emphasizing the relationship with the plant as well as the foreign nature of the tale.

In this movie, a handsome peasant couple are in love: Jeanne (voiced by Aiko Nagayama) and Jean (Katsutaka Ito). Being a peasant mean being at the mercy of the local lord. As was the custom, the couple and their families ask for permission from the local baron for the marriage. They have sold one cow, but the baron demands the price of ten.  Jeanne is particularly beautiful with long luscious eyelashes and curling hair that ends past her waist. The baron decides to take the droit du seigneur, or right of the lord, also known as the right of the first night. There’s some controversy as to wether this is fact or fiction. Yet surely, there is no debate that lords and knights raped peasant women. Jeanne is raped by the baron and his courtiers. The rape is depicted in demurely graphic illustrations that do not depict the penis, but do symbolically imagine red bats and a throbbing red crevice that transverses Jeanne’s body.

While there is horror, there is also eroticism. Rape is still presented as horrific, but beautiful.  Jeanne is finally thrown out of the castle, her clothes in tatters and the courtiers watching. She returns to Jean who suggests they forget about the past. She cannot. A small phallic demon tempts her to move toward revenge, playing in her hands as if asking her to jack him off. This is definitely not a cartoon for children.

The baron decides he needs to fund a war. Jean becomes a tax collector, but when he can’t squeeze enough money from the local peasants, the baron cuts off his hand. Jeanne then is urged by another demon to ask the local moneylender, a man who has even refused the baron, for a loan. She becomes a moneylender.

When the baron returns from war, his wife urges him to condemn Jeanne as a witch. Jean becomes so fearful of being punished because of this vendetta, he locks Jeanne out. She finds refuge in the forest and meets with the devil who grants her magical powers. She then leads a rebellion against the tyranny of the feudal lords and the Catholic Church which supports this right of the first night. In the end, she’s revealed to be Jeanne d’Arc, or as we know her, Joan of Arc. You can imagine this animation didn’t go over well with the French Catholic Church nor fans of Joan of Arc.

The transparent watercolor illustrations were heavily influenced by Gustav Klimt, Tarot illustrations and Art Nouveau. The lines are lyrical waves and gracefully undulate. The coloring is often blotchy, as if to emphasize the hand-drawn nature. The animation itself is limited. Much of the “action” is supplies by panning down stills or zooming in or out of stills.

Yet the story gets too caught up with the beauty and eroticize both the rape and subsequent descent into degradation. Instead of becoming a threatening weapon, the phallus is a playful puppet that tempts Jeanne as she learns to control it. When she finally surrenders to the devil, strands of her hair entangle small versions of her in different sexual positions having sex in many ways with herself. The comic mixes with the luridly erotic. Does it work? Not for the modern sensibility and the contemporary concept of rape. Nor will a story that makes the beloved Joan of Arc the less than saintly sexual adventuress somewhat ennobled by a righteous indignation over first night rights.

Much of the narrative is sung with music by Masahiko Sato and narration by Chinatsu Nakayama.  The music is sweet and that doesn’t help the problematic view of rape and outrage social movements.This is sexual assault made beautiful and a saint made a sinner. The movie premiered in 1973. Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking books “Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape” was first published in 1975.  The women’s movement and the publication of the book pushed for change and attitudes have changed tremendously since the 1970s. “Belladonna of Sadness” remains an uneasy relic of those confused times. For dates and places in and out of Los Angeles, visit the Cinelicious Pics website.


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