What’s the best way to watch Japanese animated porno Belladonna of Sadness (1973), a beautiful and upsetting fantasy about a medieval peasant who reluctantly screws the Devil in exchange for supernatural powers?
You may want to get lost in the filmmakers’ elegant hand-painted drawings: A soft color palette of burnt oranges and dusky purples enhances the feather-delicate brushstrokes in illustrations that suggest acknowledged influences like Aubrey Beardsley’s art nouveau drawings and Gustav Klimt’s Golden Phase paintings.
But you can’t easily ignore the filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward rape. Jeanne’s (Aiko Nagayama) frequent violation by the Devil (Tatsuya Nakadai) is initially presented as spank-bank material in misogynistic sex scenes that emphasize the possession and destruction of Jeanne’s body. Later, she’s fucked so hard that she inexplicably regains control, becoming one with the universe or something. What you get out of these violent sex scenes — like when Jeanne’s body is briefly transformed into a blood-red puddle of shape-shifting curves and orifices — depends on whether you choose to see Jeanne as a tormented martyr or a series of ravishing drawings.
You could marvel at the animators’ draftsmanship during slow tracking shots that highlight her flowing mane and jutting profile. Or you might get stuck on how cartoonishly oversexed she often is. Jeanne’s frequent gasps make her sound like an orgasm-prone asthmatic, and her ever-gaping mouth makes her look like a ventriloquist’s dummy. You can fully enjoy Belladonna of Sadness if you either overlook or participate in the objectification of a gorgeous victim.
Belladonna of Sadness
Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto
Opens May 6, Metrograph