There is an adage that goes, “To know where you’re going, you need to know where you’re coming from.” This was certainly the case with the opening ceremonies for Scotland Loves Anime 2016. The first night of the festival featured a screening of the 1973 anime film Belladonna of Sadness at the Glasgow Film Theatre.
Belladonna of Sadness is a testament to the beginnings of anime. Made in 1973, it is the third installment of the Animerama trilogy - a trilogy which benefitted from the creative genius of one of the founding fathers of anime: Osama Tezuka. By the time director and writer Eiichi Yamamoto got to creating Belladonna of Sadness, he had only a third of the original projected budget left. When it was released, it was a complete flop. People hated the film for its content and style of animation. Despite this, Yamamoto decide to enter the film into the 23rd annual Berlin International Film Festival and when the screening finished, it received a standing ovation.
It is important to understand the complicated history behind Belladonna of Sadness because otherwise, the film would be tough to watch. This movie is not for the casual anime viewer, mainly because it is so far removed from what we think of as “anime” today. A visually jarring cinematic experience, Belladonna of Sadness is mainly a series of pans over elaborate painted scenes. Paired with ambient folk music and sparse insertions of classical animation, it is about as far removed from the mainstream as is possible. The story itself is inspired by Jules Michelet’s book Satanism and Witchcraft which explains the heavy French influence on the art of the film.
Belladonna of Sadness is not a film meant for leisurely watching; it is meant to be experienced and puzzled at. It begs us to ask ourselves questions about virtue and morality. Though the subject matter might seem and feel dated — the story is set in French colonial times — the themes of love and self-sacrifice keep it poignant.
Watching Belladonna of Sadness gives the viewer important context to see how far anime has come as a genre. It is the foundation upon which an entire industry has been built. Perhaps what anime needs now in order to understand where it is going, as it experiences a surge in popularity, is to remember where it has come from.