CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of sexual assault and the use of disturbing images.
The past few years have been a golden age of accessibility for previously hard-to-see anime films. Two such classics are Eiichi Yamamoto’s 1973 Belladonna of Sadness and Satoshi Kon’s 1997 debut, Perfect Blue. Belladonna’s 4K restoration hit theaters in spring 2016, and Perfect Blue got two special 20th-anniversary screenings in September.
These are films that carry a lot of clout among anime fans and connoisseurs for their prestigious staff and place in anime history. It’s well-earned! They are artistic powerhouses, standouts of their respective eras and the careers of their creators. They’re also very concerned with violent trauma being visited on their female main characters.
Rape is used as a crucial development in the stories of both Belladonna’s Jeanne and Perfect Blue’s Mima. Both characters are ambitious young women: Jeanne is shown to have the skills and business savvy to run a thriving textile business on her own, and Mima longs to control her own artistic image. But the trauma they experience drastically changes the way these women react emotionally to the world around them and understand their place in it.
Their stories take place centuries apart, but they are both set in situations that restrict women’s roles and the ways in which they can obtain and use power. In Belladonna, a medieval peasant woman like protagonist Jeanne had few options for autonomy or social influence, and the story explores both her empowerment and ostracization through sexuality.
Although Perfect Blue takes place in the late ’90s, its main character is in a similarly limited position. The film is often held up as a searing indictment of the idol industry, but it stands up as a commentary on female celebrities and the compromises expected of women in general.
Depictions of rape on film are a contentious issue, for good reason. It’s a fine line between exploring trauma and exploiting trauma. The nuance has been hotly debated regarding prestige series like Game of Thrones and Outlander. Too often, rape and sexual assault can seem like low-hanging catalysts for character motivation, almost always in the case of a character from a marginalized group.
Awareness and sensitivity on the part of a creator is crucial when the act and fallout of sexual assault is not just an origin story, but an express focus. In Belladonna and Perfect Blue, the danger of sexual assault feels true to context and character, but the way trauma is shown illustrates how framing and focus can make the difference between a scene turning exploitative or not.
Belladonna of Sadness was the third film in the Animerama trilogy, a group of movies made by Osamu Tezuka’s studio Mushi Pro. It is the only one neither written nor directed by Tezuka himself. Like the entire series (the others being A Thousand and One Nights and Cleopatra), Belladonna was conceived as an adult or “pink” film.
It drew on a considerably more obscure and academic inspiration: Jules Michelet’s speculative history of witchcraft, Satanism and Witchcraft, a book that’s notable for its sympathetic portrayal of witches. Director Eiichi Yamamoto used this as the basis for a story about women struggling to achieve sexual agency, but there is a tension between its dark subject matter and its place as an erotic film.
Belladonna takes place in a Medieval village where newlywed peasants Jeanne and Jean are celebrating their happiness. In the beginning, the couple comes off less as two dynamic characters and more as a representation of the ideal man and woman – attractive, virtuous, hardworking, and strong.
In a quick and cruelly arbitrary turn, Jeanne is violently raped by the local baron and his men on her wedding night. Jean and any sympathetic onlookers are powerless to stop it. The crowd, including the baron’s wife, eggs him on.
The staging of this scene doesn’t shy away from the details of the rape itself (warning: disturbing imagery). The film portrays Jeanne’s brutal violation through aggressive animation and color choice, choosing to capture her physical and emotional destruction as she feels it rather than the literal act.
I’ve always been partial to this scene as an example, if one exists, of a “good” way to show rape. Even in the midst of a film that explores its protagonist’s sexuality so explicitly, this scene doesn’t sexualize Jeanne’s body. It’s graphic and repulsive, but a uniquely visceral portrayal of the shock and psychological distress of assault that puts the victim’s experience in focus.
This is not to say that Belladonna is a bastion of respectful and empowering messages. After her rape, Jeanne is despondent and rejected by even her husband. In her sadness, she laments the one thing she, a violated and socially low-ranking woman, lacks: power.
Her desperate plea for agency is answered by a very phallic Satan. He offers her two things: her first orgasm, and the power she craves. Power and self-possession are inextricable from her awakened sexuality.
The idea that her agency can only have come about in the aftermath of such a violent trauma is upsetting, and the whiplash of getting a risque scene directly after a shocking rape is pretty much how the rest of the film goes. Jeanne’s efforts to self-direct her life ultimately result in her being re-victimized and cast out of town.
Even when she decides to fully embody her role as a witch who is unashamed of sexual pleasure, her power still comes from Satan and the presence of a male body. There is a constant tension between telling a story of historical fiction about the oppression of women and female sexuality and being an erotic and titillating film that uses Jeanne’s beauty and body as its main well of arousing content.
There is more than one instance of sexual assault in Perfect Blue, but the centerpiece scene comes near the halfway point. The story follows Mima Kirigoe, a young woman who has had moderate success as a pop idol but leaves her group early in the film to pursue a career as an actress.
Mima struggles through bit parts until the producer of the crime drama she’s working on suggests a larger role as a rape victim who develops dissociative identity disorder. Like Jeanne and the devil, degradation becomes a warped avenue to obtain power and agency. The implication for Mima’s career is that she must pay her dues with “sketchy” scenes until she can earn the right to advocate for herself as a serious actress.
Unlike the rape scene in Belladonna, Mima herself is not being assaulted, but she is nonetheless traumatized by the experience. The set is dressed as a strip club and Mima’s character and costume bear a striking resemblance to her own image as an idol.
Throughout this (pretty drawn out!) scene, the camera lingers on her distressed face, body, and exposed breasts. In the context of the in-movie crime drama, it’s clearly supposed to be a salacious scene. It recalls the worst examples from the Game of Thrones discourse, where the direction and writing seem more concerned with arousal than showing rape as horror or exploring the victim’s interiority.
While both films’ rape scenes happen in crowds, Belladonna places us in Jeanne’s perspective, where Perfect Blue gives us the same point of view as the actors playing Mima’s attackers and the male camera crew filming it. As a commentary on how media treats sexual assault, this scene is effective and extremely uncomfortable to watch, in no small part because the framing essentially makes us moviegoers complicit in casting Mima as a sex object.
The crux of Perfect Blue’s psychological horror is the way we are drawn into Mima’s doubt about her own identity and experience. After the rape scene, her grasp on reality deteriorates, mixing up not only her former pop idol persona with her “normal” self, but the events of the TV drama with her real life.
She is plagued by visions of MeMania, a pathologically devoted fan of her idol image. Mima sees him on set when he isn’t there, but we know he is in fact a danger to her. When he actually appears at her workplace and tries to kill her, believing he is killing an “imposter” trying to sabotage Mima the idol, the assault mimics the fictional rape in setting and direction. Again, Mima’s distress is sexualized and her body, not her experience, are emphasized.
Perfect Blue has, in some ways, the inverse problem of Belladonna. The latter’s messages of empowerment and empathy toward trauma are undermined by its packaging as an erotic film meant to be, at least to a degree, arousing. In Perfect Blue, the sexualization of Mima’s assault and harassment becomes ultimately corrosive to its criticism of the systems that seek to abuse her.
There is real meat to the ideas both films grapple with about female agency and identity. Plenty of media simply perpetuates and endorses this kind of exploitation and objectification, and Belladonna of Sadness and Perfect Blue turn a more critical eye towards. However, they fail in their respective ways to fully commit.
These two films are valuable in the canon of great animation and to these discussions, but in the midst of the reverence towards them we can also make room for recognizing the flaws and mixed successes they had in delivering on their theses.