Belladonna of Sadness (1973) Blu Ray (All The Anime)
Sympathy for the devil
In an unnamed medieval kingdom a loving peasant couple named Jean and Jeanne get married. However, what should be the happiest day of their life is destroyed when they can’t pay the church the ten cows in taxes they owe. As a result, the lord of the kingdom decides to impose penance by having Jeanne gang-raped.
The forced deflowering of Jeanne on their wedding night renders Jean a broken man. However, that same evening Jeanne is visited by The Devil (voiced by veteran Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai) who starts to worm his way into her psyche… and her body. As his influence grows she increasingly embraces witchcraft, earning her both the adulation of the locals and the increasing suspicion of the church.
Watch a trailer:
Most bizarre anime of all time?
This 1973 Japanese anime was inspired by both La Sorciere - Jules Michelet’s examination of the history of witchcraft - and by the story of Joan Of Arc. Do you have a mental picture in your head already of what it will be like? Well, it’s probably nothing like the viewing experience you will get here. “Full-on acid trip in an art museum” is probably far closer to the mark. It’s a piece of lysergic quasi-feminist historic fantasy which seemingly cherry-picks from as diverse artistic reference points as watercolour, expressionism, art nouveau, pop art, medieval tapestries, Hieronymous Bosch, Pink Floyd album covers and lovingly hand-drawn children’s books.
Don’t be deceived by the opening
It starts off in a deceptively happy-clappy manner with an upbeat Japanese-language song celebrating the love between Jean and Jeanne, accompanying some psychedelic pans upwards over the stained glass windows of the church where their wedding takes place. It’s a fanciful sugar rush of an opening but - as the film’s title surely implies - it won’t last. The darkness hits hard and fast as Jeanne’s rape is painted in a simultaneously surreal and utterly devastating manner. Her body is shown tearing up the middle from her groin, unleashing a phallic throb of red across the screen, only for it then to morph into a cloud of bats.
Blatantly eroticised imagery features throughout, be it via Jeanne’s frequent nudity or via the overtly phallic incarnation of The Devil. Variously, sex is used as an instrument of subjugation by the church (be it early on with Jeanne’s rape, or later with their sanctimonious disapproval of a peasant woman admitting to wanting sex for the enjoyment of it rather than getting pregnant) and as an instrument of liberation by both The Devil and his feminine subject.
Non-conformity is part of human evolution
The other main aspect brought across is the harshness of medieval life and the use of witchcraft as a bolster against its ravages. Most vividly, a Black Death sequence has splotches of darkness morph into vast-mouthed monsters who seem to swallow the faintly-painted village from the screen. This is one of the standout sequences in a film filled with visually striking moments.
Other memorable scenes include the still tapestry-style drawings scrolling across the screen filled with imagery reflecting the narrated voiceover, and a left-field moment which literally transcends space and time by providing glimpses of modern-day New York and the Taj Mahal within a screen filling up with all sorts of random bric-a-brac. The significance of the latter? Perhaps, the timelessness of the film’s message: the forces of nonconformity and unbridled feminism as a crucial component of human evolution over the true force of evil: the establishment.
Belladonna of Sadness is a hymn to the potency of subliminally disturbing imagery when forged into a razor-sharp message. It’s a must for any lover of film who is old enough to watch it (it’s rated 18 in the UK).
Runtime: 86 mins
Dir: Eiichi Yamamoto
Script: Yoshiyuki Fukuda, Eiichi Yamamoto, from a novel by Jules Michelet
Voices: Tatsuya Nakadai, Katsuyuki Ito, Aiko Nagayama
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The use of colour is eye-searingly beautiful on this Blu Ray, while the prog rock-influenced soundtrack is rich and vibrant ear-candy. A superb restoration by Cinelicious Pics.
The disc comes boxed with 6 art cards plus a 20-page booklet. The most substantial article in the booklet is an analysis by Jasper Sharp called “The Witching Hour”, which looks mainly at the film’s extraordinary artistic style which gives it an enduring appeal. He also reveals that its presentation at the 1973 Berlin International Film Festival caused numerous walkouts from those expecting it to be a family-friendly cartoon.
On the disc itself are the following:
Interview with Eiichi Yamamoto
The film’s director talks about his stint with Mushi Productions, the decision to take an experimental approach, and the rather inappropriate marketing that saw it linked with Astro Boy, despite the fact that both anime are stylistically and tonally almost diametrically opposed to one another. Late on in the interview, art director Kuni Fukai joins Eiichi to discuss some of the film’s most notable images.
Interview with Kuni Fukai
A more interesting interview than the first, this one begins with Kuni Fukai discussing how he got into creating manga after WWII. During that period it was mostly about the war and about human beings, both of which he learned to hate (“the smell of war started to blend with humans” he says). He decided to draw his own with animal characters. He also admits that in his early career he was entirely money-focused.
Interview with Masahiko Satoh
The anime’s composer talks about his career background and the various instruments he used to compose its soundtrack. Although he treats us by playing a piece of the score on the piano, the interview’s more for real music buffs than those with a more casual interest. It’s also unfortunate that in some shots taken from a certain angle the white subtitles become awkward to read against the bright shine of the wooden floor.
Along with this somewhat dry trio of interviews, we get three trailers.
The film’s a surreal one-of-a-kind masterpiece, fantastically restored. However, the extras only get three stars because of the attractively illustrated booklet and art cards; the disc special features are distinctly underwhelming.