Belladonna of Sadness
by Hope Madden
Who’s looking for a psychosexual acid trip? Well, it’s your lucky day because Belladonna of Sadness – Eiichi Yamamoto’s 1973 animated cult flick – gets new theatrical life thanks to a 4K restoration.
Based on Satanism and Witchcraft – a 19th Century text by Jules Michelet about seduction, witchcraft, and female empowerment – the film tells the story of a newly married couple and their troubles in feudal Europe.
Jean and Jeanne attempt to sidestep the law of the land allowing a baron to deflower a bride, but their pleas fall on sadistic ears. Yamamoto’s vivid depiction of the gang rape that follows is not only a sudden visual eruption in the dreamy watercolor style that precedes the scene, but a hint at the unsettling imagery that will punctuate the entire balance of the film.
The story pits feminine power against the systemic misogyny of the time as an allegory of modern feminism – well, modern in 1973. Jeanne slowly comes to the realization that embracing Satan to break from the repressive nature of bureaucratized Christianity may be her only road to personal power.
On one hand, this particular theme of revolution is older than Michelet’s work and as contemporary as Robert Eggers’s modern genre masterpiece The Witch. And yet, it’s a startling revelation, subversive in many ways, most of which are depicted in this film with wild abandon. As genitalia morphs into lion mouths and giraffe heads during extended, orgiastic sequences, Yamamoto equates sexual liberation with personal empowerment.
And yet, this is a Nineteenth Century text penned by a man, which has been reimagined and rendered – animated, written, directed, and scored – by men. It may be less than surprising to find that Satan (the empowerer) is depicted as a small but growing anthropomorphic penis.
Though Belladonna of Sadness finds tragedy in the repression and objectification of women, the film seems at a loss as to how to express its themes without objectifying Jeanne.
The film certainly can’t be dismissed entirely because of its somewhat conflicted sense of female empowerment, though. Yamamoto’s hypnotic yet jarring visual style, rupturing panoramic still drawings with bursts of movement and color, looks like nothing else onscreen. The aesthetic meshes with Masahiko Sato’s psychedelic score to create the trippiest film to open on national screens since the Age of Aquarius.
It’s a fascinating, disturbing, imaginative piece of animation that looks and feels like nothing else.