In medieval France, country girl Jeanne is set to marry her sweetheart Jean when their feudal lord takes advantage of a strange, local custom to force himself on the young beauty, and then allows his soldiers to gang rape her. The One Hundred Years War has begun and Jean’s hand is cut off when he fails to raise enough funds for the army. He nearly strangles Jeanne for her ‘impurity’, but eventually tells her to forget about the rape. Losing faith in all around her, Jeanne begins conversing with the Devil (voiced by celebrated actor Tatsuya Nakadai, star of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and Kagemusha (1980)), imploring his help in exchange for her body and soul. When found out she is driven from the village by an angry mob led by Jean. Living naked and free amidst a pastoral idyll, Jeanne allows the devil to seduce her, yields to pleasure and awakens phenomenal, sexual powers. A plague sweeps the land and Jeanne’s witchcraft-lovemaking miraculously heals the sick. This rouses the feudal lord, who tries his best to exploit her erotic powers.
Based on the 1862 novel La Sorcière by Jules Michelet, Tragedy of Belladonna was the third and final project in the Animerama series conceived by legendary anime auteur Osamu Tezuka. Like its predecessors, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1970) and Cleopatra: Queen of Sex (1971), the film was an experiment aimed at pushing the boundaries of anime, fusing eroticism with psychedelic visuals and intellectual content. Similar experiments were taking place throughout Europe and America during the seventies, but whereas counterculture animators like Ralph Bakshi beat the genre into a downbeat, misogynistic dead end, the Animerama films celebrate sex as force for personal expression, spiritual liberation and socio-political change - without neglecting the complexities and consequences of “free love.” As such they’re closer in spirit to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life than anything else.
Tezuka’s involvement in Tragedy of Belladonna was actually minimal, since by the time production began he had lost his Mushi Productions company to a shady takeover bid. Regular collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto was given full creative control this time and pushed his skills into psychedelic overdrive. The film unfolds for the most part via a series of static, yet exquisitely adorned tableaus that deliberately evoke such modernist and Art Nouveau painters as Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, Egon Schiel and Aubrey Beardsley (art design was by the celebrated illustrator Kuni Fukai). Punctuating these still-frame sequences are several ingenious, trippy interludes that idolize the curvaceous, long-legged Jeanne, transforming her lush lips, sensuous eyelashes and swirling locks of hair into a series of seductive abstract forms, that become the erotic equivalent of the “Stargate” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - set to a funky, psych-rock soundtrack.
The rape scene manages to be truly harrowing without seeming exploitative, thanks to a nifty bit of visual invention that conveys the traumatic emotions felt by the victim. Aside from this moment of horror, Tragedy of Belladonna is a seriously sexy movie, considerably more so than the rape-driven trash that usually passes for Japanese erotica. Loosely inspired by the story of Joan of Arc, Jules Michelet drew upon his own political and feminist beliefs to craft a striking, sympathetic heroine. The Devil is presented not in the Judeo-Christian sense of corrupting evil, but as a pagan force for liberation Jeanne calls upon when everything else (justice, true love, the Church) has failed her. The film flirts with a “Make Love Not War” ethos that might seem trite, but turns concepts like sainthood, abstinence and purity completely upside down. Jeanne becomes a “holy whore”, as enlightened, spiritual and committed to peace as any virgin saint. Anyone familiar with the story of Joan of Arc knows this can only end one way, but here the fiery conflagration becomes less a tragedy than the heroine’s rebellious triumph.