The Story of Animerama: Belladonna of Sadness

 By 1971, things looked grim for the Animerama project and Mushi Productions.  Cleopatra had flopped, Tezuka had resigned from the studio in shame, their animators were leaving en masse, and not even the success of Ashita no Joe was enough to boost Mushi’s flagging fortunes.  It was during this desperate time that Eiichi Yamamoto would create the final Animerama film: Belladonna of Sadness.  After years of trying to realize Tezuka’s vision, it was finally time for him to demonstrate what he was capable of as a director.  Belladonna would unite its unconventional source material, a handful of outside talent, and the limited resources of a dying studio into a film unlike any other anime before or since.

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Strictly speaking, Belladonna of Sadness is not an Animerama film.  While there were vague plans for a third film when the project was first conceived, they were never fully developed.  The true inspiration behind this film was the famous animated adaptation of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.  Tokyo arthouse theaters had enjoyed great success with that film and asked Nippon Herald if they could produce another film in the same vein as that.  They in turn reached out to Mushi Productions, who at this point were no state to refuse any project offered to them.  

This isn't the only reason, though.  On the posters for the film, it is labelled not as “Animerama,” but instead “AnimeRomanesque”.  The film’s original trailer also describes it as a “Romanesque” film.  I can only speculate what Nippon Herald meant by this phrase.  Was it mean to be a mash-up of ‘anime’ and ‘bildungsroman’?  Was it meant to refer to “Roman pornos,” a subset of pink films that were popular at the time?  Arguably, the reasoning doesn't matter because the rebranding didn’t stick.  Belladonna of Sadness has since retroactively been lumped in with the other Animerama films due to the focus on adult content and shared staff members, not unlike how Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind was originally made by Studio Topcraft but has been since rebranded as a Ghibli film because of the involvement of Hayao Miyazaki and other future Ghibli staff.

Perhaps the rebrand was fitting, though.  After all, this film was in many ways a fresh start for Eiichi Yamamoto.  For the first time in over a decade, he was not beholden to Osamu Tezuka in any way, shape or form.  He was no longer restricted to whatever ideas Tezuka wanted to adapt.  He no longer had to work around Tezuka’s whims and demands.  Yamamoto was completely free to make whatever film he wanted in whatever fashion he wished.  By this point, he was more than ready to demonstrate what he was capable of as a director and what lessons he had learned from the previous two Animerama films. 

Yamamoto would take advantage of that freedom right from the start through his choice of source material.  This time he would not be adapting a piece of world folklore or a story from ancient history, but instead a history book from the nineteenth century.  Specifically, he chose Jules Michelet’s La Sorciere.  Michelet’s book took a lot of liberties with actual history, but it had an unusually progressive premise for its time, as he posited that the medieval practice of witchcraft came about as a form of rebellion by peasant women against the patriarchial forces of both the Church and the nobility.  Its premise also happened to fit well with the turbulent political atmosphere of early 1970s Japanese politics and film, along with some of the advances and discussions happening within second-wave feminism, and it would serve as the fertile soil from which the story would grow.  


Yamamoto and screenwriter Yoshiyuki Fukuda didn’t so much adapt the book as they turned it into an allegory, combining it with elements from Japanese folk lore, the story of Jeanne d’Arc, and their own original ideas.  It would become the story of Jeanne, a peasant woman whose happy marriage is wrecked when the lord of the land rapes her on her wedding day.  In her attempt to get ahead of the lord’s oppressive taxes, Jeanne makes some minor deals with the devil to amass a little bit of power and prestige for herself and her spouse, but the lord’s wife declares her a witch and drives her into the wilderness.  Jeanne ends up committing her soul to the devil and becoming a true witch, where she finds the freedom and power to help others as the Black Plague ravages the countryside.  The lord ultimately exploits her last remaining tie to her previous life – her love for her feckless husband – to condemn her to death by burning at the stake.

Belladonna of Sadness might have had an ambitious story, but it had very little in the way of resources to animate that story.  Once, Mushi Productions had been able to command over 100 in-house animators to work on the Animerama films.  By 1971, many of those animators had already left the studio and the few who remained could not be spared from Mushi’s remaining TV projects.  Even Eiichi Yamamoto was forced to work double duty as a director, working on shows like Wansa-kun in addition to this film.  This left him with only a dozen animators to work with, although that group included both Osamu Dezaki (fresh off of his stunning directorial debut on Ashita no Joe) and Yamamoto’s old friend Gisaburo Sugii (who served as both animation director and key animator).  Luckily, Yamamoto had spent most of his career in animation making the most of limited time and resources.  He was prepared to take what talent he had on hand, mix it with the contributions of a few important outsiders, and make the tough but prudent decisions necessarily to get Belladonna done.

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Belladonna of Sadness doesn’t just look different from the other Animerama features.  It looks completely different from anything else found within the world of anime, before or since.  Belladonna’s unique look came primarily from the film’s art director, Kuni Fukai.  Fukai had dabbled in manga in his early years, but had settled into a career as a professional artist with an abstract, minimalist style.  It was this particular style that drew Yamamoto to Fukai’s art in the first place, as the use of negative space and white backgrounds reminded him of classical Japanese art.  Yamamoto commissioned twenty storyboard images that would serve as the basis for the film’s art style.  These were mostly drawn in ink and watercolor, and they drew upon a rich tapestry of influences: post-Impressionists like Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch, Art Nouveau artists like Aubrey Beardsley, pop art, pieces from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and even traditional imagery from Tarot decks.  Thus, they created an aesthetic for this film that was simultaneously not tied to any particular era but one that could have only been produced in the early 1970s.

Fukai’s art was striking but it would have been difficult for any studio to animate them at the best of times, much less using the skeleton crew that Yamamoto had to work with.  So, Yamamoto chose to simply minimize how much of the film was full animated.  Early on, Yamamoto instructed his animators to not worry about things like lip flaps for dialogue and to keep the moments of full animation to a minimum.  After all, there were traditional forms of Japanese puppetry like bunraku where characters’ mouths didn’t move but got the story across through motion and expression; his film would work along similar lines.  He encouraged his staff to explore alternate methods of animation and camera movement to get the story across, reserving their best efforts for the scenes that needed the most emotional and thoughtful impact and letting the audience mentally fill in the rest.  



Thus, many scenes are simple shots of still images with narration.  Others are montages that pan horizontally across the screen in the manner of an illustrated scroll.  Jeanne’s transformation into a witch begins with an explosion of Peter Max-esque psychedelica, only to be followed by a dreamy, constantly morphing sequence animated entirely with oil paints on glass.  The ravages of the Black Plague are lushly animated in stark washes of black and white and flashing lights.  These sequences make up some of the most stunning images in the entire film, and it’s a testament to the skill of the crew that even when it doesn’t look cohesive, it all feels cohesive.  That being said, the staff were not completely unaware of how the film looked.  Yamamoto himself would call it a "patchwork film."  Animator Nobuyuki Tsugata would call its style "udokanai animation"- literally, "inanimate animation."    

Something else that made Belladonna of Sadness different from its predecessors was how it approached its sexual content.  In A Thousand and One Nights, sexuality was merely a spicy addition to a larger, more visually dazzling adventure.  In Cleopatra, sex appeal was front and center, a crutch upon which the lackluster story could lean.  Meanwhile, Belladonna of Sadness featured more sex and casual nudity than either of its predecessors but it was backed up with a level of narrative maturity and nuance that the other films lacked.  This was something of a necessity, considering how much of the film hinged upon the fallout of Jeanne’s sexual assault and the demands that other men make upon herself and her body. 

What is unusual about Belladonna is the level of sympathy and sensitivity it has for Jeanne and her plight.  Her rape is not played for tawdry fanservice, but instead uses imagery of demons, bats, blood and tearing to symbolically convey Jeanne’s fear and trauma in a fashion that allowed it to get past the film censors without losing any of the impact.  Her nudity in the film’s second half isn’t just for sex appeal, but also symbolizes her freedom from the restrictions of civilization and her newfound connection to the natural world as a witch.  Sex in this film can often be traumatic and transactional as the men around Jeanne make demands of her and her body, but it can also be beautiful and tender or wild and transgressive.  In this sense, Belladonna managed to achieve what the other two Animerama films could not: it told a story that was not just mature in content, but also dealt with mature themes in substantial and artful ways.

As production on Belladonna of Sadness continued, Yamamoto would make one more fateful choice about its production.  He had seen first-hand how much stress crunch time had added to the previous two Animerama films.  He had seen how it had hindered the quality of the animation as well as how much it had negatively affected the morale of the animators.  As far as he was concerned, you could get the same results from 10 artists working for 10 months as you could from 100 people working nonstop for a single month.  Thus, he gave his team all the time they needed to complete their work, to the point where the film went 10 months over its original production deadline.  This was an unusually humane and ethical choice on his part, but it was also a risky one considering that Mushi’s fortunes continued to decline with each new month.  Yamamoto wasn’t worried about that, though.  He was determined to make something truly unique in whatever fashion he saw fit, no matter how long it might take.

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Belladonna of Sadness would have its official premiere not in Japan, but at the 1973 Berlin International Film Festival.  It would be screened on June 27th to positive word of mouth but little in the way of fanfare, much less any award consideration.  It would make its Japanese debut a few days later, but its released was marred by two factors.  The first was the breakdown of the relationship between Mushi Production and Nippon Herald.  Back when Belladonna was first greenlit, Nippon Herald promised to screen it at Tokyo’s finest arthouse theaters.  Two years later, it was dumped at a handful of theaters that specialized in pink films and similar sorts of B-films with the tagline “from Astro Boy to Belladonna”, much to Eiichi Yamamoto’s eternal annoyance.  Not surprisingly, this mismatch between the marketing and the film ensured that few people saw Belladonna in the first place, and that most of those who did see it didn’t get it.  The film would run for only 10 days before getting pulled from theaters entirely.


Even if Belladonna of Sadness had somehow turned out to be a hit, it wouldn’t have been enough to save Mushi Productions.  After three more years of money mismanagement, failed anime series, and an attempted coup by a former sales manager, Mushi Productions finally shut down in 1973.  By the time Belladonna premiered, the studio had already filed for bankruptcy and the studio would shut down permanently by the end of the year.  Yamamoto wasn’t willing to completely give up on his film, though.  He tried one more shot at re-releasing the film in 1979, even going so far as to edit out eight minutes of the most graphic sexual content and adding on a new ending in hopes of reaching a wider female audience, but this idea fell apart before it could actually reach theaters.

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This is seemingly where the story of both Belladonna of Sadness and the Animerama trilogy as a whole should end.  A project that began with high hopes and grand ambitions to change the face of Japanese animation had ended in ignominy and failure as the fate of these films (and everything else belonging to Mushi Productions) would be up for debate in bankruptcy court for the next four years.  Things were not yet done for the two men who helped create the Animerama films, though.  In our final installment, we’ll look at the very different career paths that Osamu Tezuka and Eiichi Yamamoto took after the closure of Mushi Productions.  We’ll also examine how modern audiences came to rediscover the Animerama trilogy, and assess the legacy they left upon the world of anime.


                                 Part Four: CleopatraPart Six: Legacy


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Jonathan Clements. Anime: A History.  BFI Palgrove. 2013.   

Gan Sheuo Hui.  "A Reevaluation of the Importance of Mushi Pro's Three Adult-Oriented Animated Films In the Development of Japanese Animation."  Cinema Studies No. 2. 2007.  Academia.edu

"Interview with Director Eiichi Yamamoto." A Thousand and One Nights.  Discotek Media/Eastern Star.  2020. 

"Interview with Director Eiichi Yamamoto."  Belladonna of Sadness.  Arbelos/Cinelicious Pics.  2016.

Helen McCarthy. "Sex, Satan, & Psychedelica."  2017.  Blog.alltheanime.com

Fred Patton. "The Last Days of Mushi Pro." 4/6/2014.  CartoonResearch.com.






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