The Tragedy of Belladonna ( Kanashimi No Belladonna) Image

My assumption is that most anime fans, like myself, stumble upon this film because of the association with Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of anime, who worked on the trilogy which “Kanashimi no Belladonna” concludes. If you’re thinking that this is something along the lines of “Astro Boy,” “Belladonna” is not the film for you. Not only because Osamu had almost no input, having left the production company to concentrate on his manga, but because this is a complete departure from the anime look that we’re familiar with today.

No big-eyed kawaii characters with gravity-defying hair. No outrageous emoting or posturing. This is an art film in the truest sense. Barely even animated at all, the story is mainly told through a series of Western-inspired watercolors. It’s not so much a film as it is an experience.

Both erotic and psychedelic with religious overtones, this is certainly not your average otaku’s anime. The story is a tragedy from the get-go and the storyline doesn’t become any lighter as the film progresses. Almost like a fairy tale darker than even the Brothers Grimm could have imagined, viewers familiar with classic literature and history will recognize the homage to those works.

The character of “Jeanne” is a doomed heroine whom feminists of the 1970s surely would have clung to, had the film gotten the worldwide acknowledgement it deserves. A poor but beautiful peasant, she is violated by a powerful lord on her wedding night because her husband has failed to pay a sufficient tax. At risk of losing everything including her beloved husband, she seeks power to rise from her despondent poverty and will eventually surrender everything she still holds dear in order to obtain it.

This was described to me as “an erotic film” but I find that it’s not at all licentious or crude in its eroticism. Although some scenes border on the explicit, I look at the nudity in the same way I would look at an 18th century erotic engraving. Yes, it’s meant to be naughty and make you titter and blush but it’s superbly done. Any randomly taken screen capture from this film could easily be hung in a gallery or make a fabulous art print and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. Its psychedelic scenes are reminiscent of “Yellow Submarine” and at other times it looks almost like a precursor to “Heavy Metal.”

The variation of artistic genres, including my beloved art nouveau, somehow manage to blend together seamlessly to convey a timeless tale of romance and woe. A soundtrack with an undeniable ’70s ambience also manages to fit perfectly without any of the camp or cheese that you might expect from a vintage film. The very talented Mayumi Tachibana provides the vocals for the film’s haunting musical numbers, which help to narrate the story of Jeanne. Why this isn’t more widely known and appreciated is simply beyond me.

At present, there are no DVD copies available in North America but that shouldn’t sway you from watching it in its original Japanese or whatever language you may find it translated into. Whether you’re a fan of Japanese animated films or an art geek, finding yourself a copy of this forgotten and overlooked piece is definitely worth the time and your effort will be greatly rewarded.

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