Synopsis: An innocent young woman, Jeanne (voiced by Aiko Nagayama) is violently raped by the local lord on her wedding night. To take revenge, she makes a pact with the Devil himself (voiced by Tatsuya Nakadai, from Akira Kurosawa’s RAN) who appears as an erotic sprite and transforms her into a black-robed vision of madness and desire.
Extremely transgressive and not for the easily offended, BELLADONNA is fueled by a mindblowing Japanese psych rock soundtrack by noted avant-garde jazz composer Masahiko Satoh. On par with Rene Laloux’s FANTASTIC PLANET and Ralph Bakshi’s WIZARDS as an LSD-stoked 1970s head trip, BELLADONNA marks a major rediscovery for animation fans. If Led Zeppelin had a favorite film, this would be it. In other words, Stairway to Hell.
eyelights: its unusual animation style. its trippy visuals.
eyesores: the miserable fate of its main character.
How does a filmmaker adapt a treatise on witchcraft through the ages to make it accessible for a mass audience? One way is taking Benjamin Christensen’s approach, which is to make a mockumentary seeping in satirical content. Another is Eiichi Yamamoto’s, which is to create a fantastical animated fiction.
Set in France in mediaeval times, ‘Kanashimi no Beradonna’ is a 1973 japanese animated film about Jeanne, a young woman who suffers one indignity after another until she crawls into the arms of the evil one, imbuing her with the power to exact her revenge on the people who have devastated her existence.
The picture is based on ‘La Sorcière’, a 1862 book by Jules Michelet on the history of witchcraft. It’s the third and last film in Eiichi Yamamoto and Osamu Tezuka’s so-called Animerama trilogy, which includes ‘Sen’ya ichiya monogatari’ and ‘Kureopatora’, based on the stories of Aladdin and Cleopatra.
Until May 11, 2016, I had no awareness of ‘Kanashimi no Beradonna’; though it was over forty years old, it had never been released in North America before. Recently rediscovered and remastered, it was being given its first theatrical showing here by Cinelicious Pics, which were also releasing it on blu-ray.
Sadly, I missed the showing at my local independent cinema. But, after reading a description of it and seeing its trippy trailer, I scrambled to get my hands on the blu-ray, which was also issued in a limited edition hardcover art book format. It looked like the kind of mindbending visuals I would enjoy.
And it was.
Though ‘Kanashimi no Beradonna’ is a tale of extreme misery, as Jeanne is denigrated, beaten and violated repeatedly, it’s not a miserable experience: much of the violence is expressed in an impressionistic fashion, in such a way that it doesn’t brutalize the audience as much as it does its protagonist.
I was actually quite impressed with the way that the filmmakers chose to tell this story of utter desecration: as unpalatable as Jeanne’s fate is it wasn’t treated in an offensive manner; instead it translated the actions and emotions in ripples of colour, in violent waves instead of in visceral visuals.
That’s not to say that it glosses over the hardships that Jeanne suffers at the hands of the Lord, the Queen, the peasants and even her devastated soulmate, Jean, it’s just that it’s expressed in a slightly more abstract fashion. In so doing, it permits us to endure the unrelenting horrors befalling her.
The picture’s style is quite original, in that much of it consists of static images animated via long pans or slow zooms, backed by narration or dialogue; it’s very much akin to being told a story from a picture book. I found this quite enjoyable, though it required from me a little bit more attentiveness.
Even though the animation can be minimalistic, the art is fairly elaborate, consisting of detailed sketches embellished with swatches of watercolours. Some of the still shots are absolutely gorgeous, worthy of framing and displaying – especially when they feature Jeanne, who is absolutely stunning.
When the picture is animated, it can be a mixture of still images and motions of colour, but there are a few times when it gets wild and crazy, like when Jeanne copulates with the devil, the result of which is a trip through the ages that is reminiscent of the animation used for ‘Yellow Submarine‘.
This is where ‘Kanashimi no Beradonna’s intentions come into question: though it shows restraint in its portrayal of psychological, physical and sexual violence, it is fairly gratuitous with its nudity, using almost any excuse to disrobe Jeanne and caress her nubile curves figuratively and literally.
Of course, this is hardly surprising contextually, both given the era the picture was made in and the fact that it was developed by male animators. Still, one has to be willing to forgive this fault to appreciate ‘Kanashimi no Beradonna’ as it totally indulges in its protagonist’s beauty and desirability.
Even as it defiles her.
But, if one is able to make such allowances, if it doesn’t offend one’s sensibilities, then ‘Kanashimi no Beradonna’ is certainly well-worth seeing: it’s a trippy journey that could only have been envisioned in the ’70s, perhaps even on hallucinogens, and as such is a remarkable viewing experience.
Granted, why Jeanne remained a victim despite all the power that she amassed over the course of her existence is inexplicable, and how this all ties in with Marianne and Bastille Day is dumbfounding but, as far as surreal, fantastical animated motion pictures go, this is definitely one of the better one.
‘Kanashimi no Beradonna’ blends misery and beauty equally.
Date of viewing: January 16, 2017