“Belladonna of Sadness” is a Japanese animated film released in 1973, but it never officially opened in the United States. Directed and co-written by Eiichi Yamamoto, the highly erotic, adult-oriented picture has remained obscure since its debut, though film buffs will recognize it for its beautiful, often psychedelic, watercolor imagery.
Film distribution company Cinelicious Pics has recently restored the movie to 4K resolution and debuted it at Fantastic Fest. The restoration is striking in its clarity and will give American audiences an awe-inspiring experience when it is released in theaters next year.
The story takes place in a rural European village where the peasant woman Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama) and her husband, Jean (Katsutaka Ito), live. Their village is ruled by a tyrannical baron (Masaya Takahashi), who rapes Jeanne on the night of her wedding to Jean.
Soon afterward, Jeanne is visited by a phallus-like spirit (Tatsuya Nakadai). The spirit advises Jeanne to take revenge against the baron, but also makes sexual advances toward her himself. Jeanne refuses and begins to gain political power as a tax collector in her village. Because of her success, she is accused of being a witch by the baron’s jealous wife (Shigako Shimegi) and driven out.
Lost in the wild and near death, Jeanne is once again confronted by the spirit, revealed at this point to be the Devil. Jeanne gives her soul to Devil, and in return, he grants her magical powers that allow her to lead the villagers against the baron.
A lot of the film’s emotional power relies on the voice actors’ skills. Aiko Nagayama embodies the sensuous, vulnerable, and independent facets of Jeanne, while Tatsuya Nakadai delivers a chilling and sadistic turn as Devil.
“Belladonna of Sadness” actually has a limited amount of animation – most of the film comprises still paintings that the camera pans across, imbuing it with a storybook-like quality. Illustrated by Kuni Fukai, many of the paintings are minimalist and inspired by Western art, and they are supported by an excellent rock-like score by Masahiko Satō.
In spite of its predominantly static nature, “Belladonna of Sadness” conveys movement in most of its images, and there is never a dull moment. Whenever a scene is fully animated, it is often an explosion of color and a surreal, metaphorical representation of feelings, rather than an objective presentation of action.
The rape of Jeanne, for example, does not depict the action itself – the film instead relies on metaphorical imagery to depict the emotional wounds Jeanne suffers. The film also takes advantage of the phallic Devil, using his growing size to show viewers that he gleans twisted pleasure from Jeanne’s suffering.
Jeanne’s attempts to quell her suffering and fight back against oppression serve as powerful commentary on the necessity of women’s equality. Toward the end of the film, Jeanne’s face is superimposed upon those of the women in her village, suggesting that she is a symbol of her gender as a whole.
Injustice is wrought upon Jeanne from the start, and her quest to rectify those wrongdoings is only met with more injustice. Her decision to give her soul to Devil communicates the magnitude of her desperation – and that of her fellow women – to stand tall in a world dominated by corrupted men.
Even then, the magical powers Jeanne receives aren’t actually supernatural. What she really gains are a liberated mind and liberated sexuality. She is no longer bound by the rigid expectations of her society and influences other women to follow her, and that strikes fear in the hearts of her male enemies.
“Belladonna of Sadness” depicts its adult, sometimes disturbing, subject matter with startling beauty. It’s an unconventionally-animated film that has aged surprisingly well over the last four decades not only in its presentation, but also in terms of its themes. “Belladonna” is, without a doubt, one of the most socially relevant films at Fantastic Fest this year.
Title: “Belladonna of Sadness”
Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Running Time: 89 minutes
Score: 10/10 Pacts with the Devil