It’s 悲しみのベラドンナ, aka Belladonna of Sadness!
Sounds pretty cheerful, isn’t it?
I mean, honestly it is kind of optimistic. Spoilers: It ends with her being Jesus-style crucified but it’s the woman form because she burns to death (why do white men like seeing women burn to death so much?) and because of her sacrifice all the women in the crowd understand her plight and will now rise up against the patriarchy and spread the word.
So, understanding all these wee nuggets, let’s jump into the aesthetics. Hey, did I mention to y’all that this show is a fuckin 70s music musical and it’s really, really, really fucking beautiful and it’s kind of the most 70s thing ever in the best possible way?
Oh, and, naturally, it’s very, very, very sexual, since you couldn’t tell by the title. There is many a tit shown and many a penis and vagina implied (though often not shown directly, except for that awesome dance orgy scene… y’all really need to go watch this). I’ll try to keep the sexy bits out of this but, well, kinda hard to do. Anyway, to be clear, this isn’t porn, though you may be aroused, and it’s absolutely sexual in much of it’s nature, but most of this presentation of sexuality is with the intent of showing how women can be independent and fuckin cool. Not for the faint of heart.
But really, how specifically are the aesthetics cool? Well, the art style is very strongly anime in how simple the animation itself is most of the time, with a strong push on beauty in each frame instead. There’s very little motion often, but when the art looks like this there doesn’t need to be. That said, there are particular moments of action where the animation is surprisingly clean and smooth, they just save it for when it counts. This allows for insanely beautiful frames all throughout the movie.
It’s also worth noting how things tend to start with a lot of color at the very beginning, when Jeanne and Jean are a happy and naive couple:
then after Jeanne is raped, much of the color is sapped from the world:
Slowly throughout as the demon teaches her to empower herself more and more, color begins to seep back in.
Then when she is accused of being a witch and whatnot, color is once again stripped somewhat:
Then she comes to understand that when she’s starving, at the end of her wits, near death, there’s something she’s gotta do to get motivated. She’s gotta masturbate to the giant devil.
^This is what happens when she orgasms. Pretty fucking cool eh?
After this we get a scene that’s nearly all black and white for the plague, but note this doesn’t focus on her.
When we do first see Jeanne again, this is how she is:
It’s as if she is so full of color that it just brings life to everything about her! Pretty wonderful, eh? She continues to bring youth and springtime glory to the scenes she’s in right up until she dies. Why is she sentenced to death? Well, because the Baron asks her,
“Well, what on earth do you want then?”
Now call me out if I’m putting my feminist goggles on too hard, but he asks this after offering her places of power, to which she gives this response. The way I see it, “everything” is equality. A rich man has all the power, and she wants everybody regardless of gender to have that power. If she just aims for stature, it’s evidence she doesn’t want equality, she just wants her share of privilege. But she wants to take away from the Baron his power over others, hence, everything he has.
Speaking of Jeanne’s death, I gotta wonder something. We don’t see the townsfolk, particularly the men, rising up and trying to revolt or riot until Jean goes crazy seeing his wife(? ex-wife?) being executed and gets himself killed in turn. Is it because the death of a man is more meaningful than the death of a woman to the townsfolk, in spite of everything she did for them? Sure, not just any man would’ve incited this, so you have to consider how wonderful she was to them, but it was the death of the man that made them all angriest, not her own death.
(Side note: Jeanne’s hair is purple by default, but after each interaction with the devil her hair goes to blonde, then blonder, then red, then back to blonde and ending with purple? Not sure it’s consistent enough to have any narrative significance, but perhaps somebody can figure out some Great Gatsbyesque analysis of this.)
So uh… didja notice the devil is kinda just representative? Like, here’s the facts about this bugger:
• He only shows up when she’s alone
• He gives her sexual pleasure
• The more Jeanne resigns her soul to him the more capable of her own power she becomes
• His whole body kinda looks like a dick in general, which gives me mixed messages since independent woman does not need penis. Maybe he’s a personified dildo?
This could mean a couple of things. If you want to go with the more literal approach, it’s indicative of Satanism since Satan is causing good things to happen. If you want to go with the more metaphorical approach given these other factors, consider this: Satan is representative of her masturbating. Note that in all his fucking of Jeanne you’re mostly hearing how she feels. It’s all about her pleasure. Note that his size / capabilities are very much associated with her independence as a female. What is this indicative of? Her fantasies when masturbating start as something tiny, but in it she finds that she can experience far greater pleasure with herself than with a man, and through this her fantasies grow. Because she understands she doesn’t need a man for pleasure, what the hell else is there she needs a man for? What pleasures in life do the impoverished have but sex and booze, and note when she finds she can give herself sexual pleasure her husband cannot, her husband turns to the booze. Not to mention the tone is all about Jeanne learning to be in control, so if the devil was literal and was literally fucking her, it’d kind of be a mismatch with everything else we get in the film.
The narrative told is strikingly simple: Jeanne is the perfect woman. The townsfolk love her. She’s chaste, beautiful, dependent on her man to do anything and in the one instance she takes any action at all, she speaks to another lady. Please too note that it’s because of such a tiny transgression as speaking at all that first brings the baroness’s attention to her, which leads to her being brutally raped by the baron and then all the guards and nobility for the whole night. She comes home with blood dripping from her leg, her voice shaking, tears in her eyes, and what are the first words out of her husband’s mouth? Let’s forget this ever happened. Really, Jean? You want her to just magically forget something as traumatizing as that not even an hour after it’s happened? Ah… but of course we can see you for who you truly are. By forget you mean murder her. You don’t want damaged property on your hands any more. Better to strangle the life out of her, start over from the beginning with your life.
It takes being brutally raped for an entire evening and then a murder attempt by her own husband for Jeanne to finally consider independence. That is how ingrained it is, how socialized women are to believe themselves dependent in this situation. From here, she slowly realizes the full extent of this. First, she’ll make a financial move independent of him and see how it goes. Oh, what? He’s an incompetent buffoon? How about you take more financial control and leave him as just your figurehead. Ah, but then you’re accused of being a witch and all the townsfolk who prospered under your generosity and even your own husband turn against you. So, what that means is that you cannot rely on anybody. You’ve gotta give, and then give, and then give some more, otherwise they’ll only steal it all from you. Only then, when you’ve been giving all you can give, does the Baron of the land himself understand how extensive a threat you are to him.
But really, 45 years later, who really needs the astrological incantations and blood rituals? Aren’t we past the point of witchcraft being an important part of feminism? Especially with all the cultural appropriation happening with wiccas and all that?
Oh. What’s this, they’re still making movies with female antagonists who are evil witches? Written a thousand years after Belladonna takes place? Yikes, what’s happened? Maybe the better question: Where’s all the commentary on this? Sure we got some of that in Utena, but is that really all she wrote? Hell, I suppose the niche of Belladonna is still quite empty. Don’t mind if I cozy up in here with my cauldron to keep me warm.
In contemporary discussions of politics and history, there’s one thing that many leftist academics seem to be supporting: pushing counternarratives to the false things people are raised on in government-funded education. This is one of the real powers of Belladonna— it’s a counternarrative. We hear about the Salem Witch Trials— brought about by girls who were foul enough to go around accusing everybody. We read about witches in fairytales. But what do we have of representing the dynamics of most accusations of witchcraft as they truly were— a way for men in power to silence and limit women who weren’t complacent with their place in society. Though Belladonna’s approach is a bit on the Eurocentric side, could go The Witches of Gambaga if you want something contemporary and in a different culture, it still plays an important role in the portrayal of witchcraft. First an accusation to limit the power of uppity women, next a tool for women to set themselves free. Witchcraft is womanly power— something to make the boys cower with fright.
(Fun fact: Some historians believe some witches were just women who performed abortions in secret, hence the stigma in those societies.)
The other important part of Belladonna in this regard is its refusal to obey the normative notions of female in its representation of witch accusations. Jeanne, though at first a passive body, always learns to take more and more control of her situation, rather than be moved a helpless pawn through these trials as a result of her womanhood. She actively chooses a dangerous, powerful life because it is a much better way of surviving than putting her head down hoping for the best. In the end when Jeanne is executed, even if she is helpless, she doesn’t die a helpless victim— she seizes the scene with drama and, though the townsfolk cannot repay her yet, she sewed the seeds of empowerment for future generations of women.