Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto (who also co-wrote the script with Yoshiyuki Fukuda), Belladonna of Sadness is an animated feature based on the 1862 novel The Sorceress by Jules Michelet, which was a novelization of a history of witchcraft and Satanism.
The film begins with the marriage of Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama) and Jean (Katsuyuki Ito) whose happiness is shattered when Jeanne is raped on her wedding night by the local lord, which is a ritual custom. Jean comforts her and says they should forget what happened but Jeanne is visited by a demon encouraging her to seek revenge. Following this visit, Jean and Jeanne become successful even when things turn bad for others in the village, including famine and high taxes to fund a war. Jean, as tax collector, is punished for failing to raise enough money. After another visit to Jeanne by the demon, she goes to a money-lender and sets herself up as a lender, as well. She becomes very successful and ultimately the real power in the village.
The local lord returns from the war to his wife accusing Jeanne of being a witch out of jealousy. Jeanne is driven out of the village and even her husband Jean turns his back on her. Jeanne disappears into the forest and makes a pact with the demon who turns out to be The Devil (Tatsuya Nakadai). With her newfound power, Jeanne returns to the village and leads them to rebel against the lord. But making a deal with the Devil will always get you burned.
Belladonna of Sadness is an intriguing piece of work. It is animated yet can be considered a pinku film due to its violence and erotic elements. The film’s artwork, with illustrations designed by Kuni Fukai, is absolutely gorgeous, a series of still paintings with some animation that tell the story of a young woman who suffers a series of misfortunes that lead her down an unexpected path. The scenes of Jeanne’s rape are quite vivid in color and detail, emphasizing the trauma of her experience. The film has a psychedelic appearance, as well as soundtrack which roots it firmly in the early 1970s, though it is still a beautifully visual experience. There are more than a few sex scenes but they are tasteful and highly stylized instead of being graphic or explicit.
While using the usual trope of sex with the Devil and utilizing a phallic depiction of the demon early on, the film is only slightly misogynistic. Jeanne is abused by authority and rebuffed by her love, turning to witchcraft to cope with her despair. Ultimately Jeanne’s story is one of defiance in the face of an oppressive system of government and a repressive religion as she transforms from witch to martyr, with Belladonna of Sadness becoming more of a feminist film through its message while retaining some exploitation elements.
Belladonna of Sadness has never had an official release in the United States and recently screened at the Japan Society during this year’s JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film with a just-completed 4K restoration.