BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973) review
written by: Yoshiyuki Fukuda and Eiichi Yamamoto
produced by: Tadami Watanabe
directed by: Eiichi Yamamoto
runtime: 86 min.
U.S. release dated: July 1-3, 2016 (Music Box Theatre)
I wasn’t prepared for “Belladonna of Sadness”, the 1973 Japanese animated feature from Mushi Production (led by Manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka), and I gather no one going in blind like I did, will be prepared for it either. That’s not a bad thing, even if the psychedelic, overtly erotic and violent adult-oriented film offends or impresses, it’s still a work of art to behold.
Until just the last couple of years, this film – which was directed and co-written by Tezuka’s colleague, Eiichi Yamamoto – had been lost in obscurity, having failed miserably when it was originally released in theaters. It has since been cleaned up by Cinelicious Pictures with a pristine 4K restoration from the original 35mm negative and slowly making its way into festivals and arthouse theaters – like last fall’s Fantastic Fest and now Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. For fans of obscure cinema, this is a sight to behold and for those Japanese animation completists, “Belladonna of Sadness” is a must-see.
Loosely based on one of French historian Jules Michelet’s novels, entitled La Sorcière or Satanism and Witchcraft, which was published in 1862 and chronicled what Michelet perceived to be the history of medieval witchcraft. The work was openly sympathetic to the oppression of peasants and women of the Middle Ages by feudalism and the Roman Catholic Church. Although the characters in “Belladonna of Sadness” are voiced by a cast of Japanese actors (with English subtitles), the French Revolution is the setting of the film, right before the storming of the Bastille.
Tamamoto’s film may start out with the narrator Chinatsu Nakayama proclaiming “Once upon a time….” but it is immediately followed by psychedelic jazz fusion by composer Masahiko Satoh, accompanied by lyrics that tell of a newlywed peasant couple Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama) and Jean (Katsutaka Ito) in a rural village. Their love is pure, tender and sweet and blessed by God. But their idyllic present and future is destroyed when they are required to report to the local lord (Masaya Takahashi) on their wedding night so that he may deflower the virgin bride as payment of their marriage tax. In an effort to dissuade the lord, Jean offers the magistrate a cow, but he is told nothing less than ten cows will do. Since the poor peasant cannot afford such a demand, he is helpless as his wife is taken from him and savagely gang-raped by the lord and his lackeys.
The psychosexual scene is viscerally depicted as Jeanne’s naked body is cleaved down the middle like an animal being slaughtered with blood flowing out of her wound and flying into oblivion in the form of countless scarlet bats. It’s a disturbing and unrelenting sight to behold and one gets the idea it’s exactly what a violated woman must feel during such a devastating atrocity. There’s no turning back from here – for the fractured married couple and the scarred viewer. The film will continue to feature additional gratuitous scenes, but none more haunting than this sequence.
When Jeanne returns to her husband, he promises that they will forget what has happened and move on, vowing to begin again from her forward. That’s easy for him to say – he wasn’t violently ravaged. Right there and then you get the idea that this guy has no clue and Jeanne will be left to figure out where to go from here on her own. Sure enough, she is visited in private by a phallic sprite, who states he has always been her, he is her and can give Jeanne her heart’s desire. Of course, the mischievous sprite is the manifestation of the Devil (Tatsuya Nakadi “Seven Samurai” and “Ran”) and a representation of Jeanne’s building hatred and repressed sexuality and soon he imp literally awakens Jeanne sexually and opens the alluring young woman to her powerful potential over those around her.
With the Devil offering Jeanne a free sample of the good fortune he can offer in exchange for her soul, Jeanne returns to her husband. He is shamed, yet soon feels the rewards that his newly recharged wife brings as their farm produces a bountiful crop while famine strikes the villagers around them. Labeled a witch by those around her and rejected by her husband, a distraught Jeanne finally fully relents to the Devil and grants her considerable dark powers that she takes back to the village and unleashes her vengeance on the Lord, his jealous wife (Shigaku Shimegi) and all who had scorned her.
The story concludes in an unsurprising manner, but at that point you’re so stunned by what you’ve taken in that it’s actually a relief its over….and then you wonder what you just witnessed. So much of the film is like a kaleidoscope of acid trip depravity – fish pouring out of vaginas, half human/half animals entwined in fornication and rabbits squeezed out of anuses – that it plays more like a hellish nightmare than a salacious fantasy.
It’s also a peculiar ending that links to Jeanne’s tragic story to the actual tale of Joan of Arc as well as the bold female personification of the French Revolution depicted in the 1830 painting “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugene Delacroix, an image which Yamamoto slips into the closing minutes of the film. All this is to say that Jeanne represents much more than a sexual awakening or a revenge-seeking female protagonist. Her character is meant to be a figure of rebellion against political and religious oppression albeit through witchcraft (as Michelet’s novel details), meant to aspire others (women specifically) to rise up against the authority of the day.
“Belladonna of Sadness” (or “Kanashimi no Belladonna”) is the final entry in a trilogy of films, from Tezuka and Yamamoto, preceded by 1969’s “A Thousand And One Nights” and 1970’s “Cleopatra”. But unlike the humor and rotund figures present in those two films, “Belladonna of Sadness” has a deliberate art nouveau and impressionistic feel, displaying figures that resemble the likes of Gustav Klimt, Edgar Degas and Wassily Kandinsky as well as trippy poster art from the 70s. Much of the storytelling is either static or is told via horizontal tableaus that travel from right to left. It’s a unique viewing experience, something foreign to what we’re so used to today.
When it was released, the only other films that were offering animation that was set apart than Disney fare (which was in a bit of a drought between 1973 and 1977) were René Laloux’s “Fantastic Planet” ( just released on Criterion) and the early features of Ralph Bakshi (“The Lord of the Rings” and “Fire and Ice”). It was certainly a different time, when more experimental or unconventional animation was accepted.
“Belladonna of Sadness” is ripe for a midnight run at a local arthouse and even then would elicit some surprised or shocked responses from virgin viewers. It feels like the kind of sexploitation animation you’d find in a Heavy Metal magazine or maybe something that would be playing on the screen of a Led Zeppelin laser show at a local city college back in the day. My bet is viewers will get the most out of this movie if they’re aided by certain substances.
Tamamoto’s take on this historical fairy tale may seem like pure provocation – yett rather than titillation, the film has an almost accusatory tone for those who find arousal in the subject matter. “Belladonna of Sadness” may be too assaulting for its own good in that sense. Although, I have a respect for it as a work of art – in fact, watching it really does feel like watching lost art – but its content is definitely not something I’d want to revisit anytime soon.