‘Belladonna of Sadness’

Belladonna of Sadness, directed by Eiichi Yamamoto, is an erotic tale of violence and revenge set in medieval France and told through psychedelic animation. Based off the book Satanism and Witchcraft by French author Jules Michelet, Belladonna was released in 1973 as the final film in Animerama—a erotic-themed anime series produced by Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka.

The protagonist Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama)—purposely named for Jeanne d’Arc—is raped by the village lord (Masaya Yakahashi) on her wedding night. After this, the Devil (Tatsuya Nakadai) appears to her in phallic form offering her a path to empowerment and vengeance entwined with sexuality.

Satan grants her the knowledge and strength to fight back against the nobility and help her fellow villagers. As Jeanne grows more powerful, her husband Jean (Katsuyuki Ito) becomes emasculated and alcoholic, and Jeanne is villainized by the village lord and his religious affiliates.

The film’s paintings, inspired by Edgar Degas (French), Gustav Klimt (Austrian) and Wassily Kandinsky (Russian) are mixed with animated scenes. The final painting “Liberty Leading the People,” by Eugene Delacroix depicts Marianne, the feminine symbol of the French Republic, and is analogous with medieval heroine Jeanne d’Arc, who led the French army and was burned at the stake for the then heresy of dressing in men’s clothes and exerting authority.

This heavy reliance on still paintings paired with overlaid narration and dialogue shares similarities with Rakugo, a traditional style of Japanese storytelling where actors’ movements are minimal and the sound of narration is central. Masahiko Sato’s score does a lot of heavy lifting in the animation’s place, switching between peaceful, folksy melodies and ‘70s modern prog-rock.

The film was massively unpopular upon release and the production studio went bankrupt in the same year. Only recently has the film resurfaced. The new 4K restoration is gorgeous and well worth the watch.

Belladonna of Sadness is running from April 10—April 22 at 5th Avenue Cinema.