Blu-ray Review: ‘Belladonna of Sadness’

Belladonna of Sadness has just completed an art house tour of the U.S. and a new restoration of this 1973 hauntingly beautiful animated film was also released on Blu-ray in July. Cinelicious Pics treated the film with the kind of reverence usually reserved for the most well-known animated classics and has done a fantastic job of bringing this film back into the spotlight. It certainly deserves it.

The film was the brainchild of the legendary Osamu Tezuka and director Eiichi Yamamoto, whose Mushi Productions was best known for Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. In the late 1960s though, the embarked on a project to create three adult-themed films called “Animera.” They were A Thousand and One Nights (1969), Cleopatra (1970) and Belladonna. All three took inspiration from stories that originated outside Japan and Belladonna‘s source was more obscure. Its source material is an 1862 French book called Satanism and Witchcraft (La Sorcière) by Jules Michelet.

The plot centers on Jeanne, who is about to be married to Jean. On their wedding night, she is repeatedly raped by the local leader and his cronies. That night, she tries to tell Jean that they can start their life over again. However, she is approached by a phallic-shaped Devil (voiced by Tatsuya Nakadi of High and Low) and offered to get her revenge.

When the baron goes off to war, Jean and Jeanne suddenly become a power couple as their fortunes are on the rise. After the baron returns, Jeanne is branded a witch and exiled. The Devil gives her actual witch powers and she tries to take over the village.

The story itself is admittedly drawn out to bring the film to 86 minutes. But the art is so beautiful that it’s hard to look away. The only thing I’ve ever seen that’s anything like this is Yellow Submarine‘s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sequence. It was like watching that part of the Beatles’ film on a loop. Brushstrokes were clearly visible, colors are never realistic and whole shots feature no animation at all. Some sequences are merely told as the camera moves through a piece of art.

Belladonna is also graphic and erotic, so don’t let your kids see this one. There is a great story of female empowerment, but it’s buried by some graphic art. It’s not as pornographic as one might think – this isn’t stuff solely there for exploitation, but builds up the challenges Jeanne faces and the (brief) sense of freedom she feels later on. Yamamoto creates a direct line between Jeanne, Joan of Arc and the French Revolution, ending the film with her burning on a stake and fading into Liberty Leading The People. Yamamoto even knew that getting this message to girls would be difficult with the graphic scenes and many of the most extreme scenes were cut for later releases. But without them, the film would be gutted of its originality.

The Blu-ray release of Belladonna is absolutely beautiful, bringing out the film’s psychedelic pop-art DNA to the forefront. It also includes interviews with Yamamoto, art director Kuni Fukai and composer Masahiko Satoh. You can’t say enough about how great Satoh’s score is. The film wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting without it. Dennis Bartok, Cinelicious Pics Executive Vice President of Acquisitions & Distribution, also contributed an essay.

Belladonna is one of those movies the phrase “not for everyone” was invented. It can seem slow at points and its reputation as a gutsy, adult-oriented film may have outgrown the product itself. However, it is still a fascinating piece of art and an incredibly original film. If you have even the slightest interest in checking this out, do not hesitate. It proves that animation is only a medium, not a genre, something way too many people misunderstand.

Thanks to Cinelicious Pics for providing the Blu-ray to review!

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