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Belladonna of Sadness | Blu-ray Review

Eiichi Yamamoto Belladonna of SadnessEiichi Yamamoto’s bizarre, upsetting, and perverse 1973 lost masterpiece Belladonna of Sadness makes a formidable resurgence this year following a loving restoration courtesy of Cinelicious Pics. Opening in limited theatrical release, usually in offbeat venues celebrating cult oddities (it has been made available at the Los Angeles Cinefamily for three months straight), it’s a landmark of animated cinema, produced by godfather of Japanese anime and manga, Osamu Tezuka. Though a commercial failure, and fingered as one of the reasons for the bankruptcy of studio Mushi Pro, the time has come to embrace this uncomfortable mixture of misogyny and female agency as filtered through the only historical template allowing women an alternative to male domination – witchcraft.

Adapted from an 1862 feminist source novel from Jules Michelet, La Sorciere (aka Satanism and Witchcraft), which detailed the history of witchcraft as a rebellion against the church and feudalism, (meant to provide women and peasants with a sense of agency), Yamamoto crafts something much more insidious and offbeat with this striking feature, an odd juxtaposition of feminist empathies and (perhaps) the unintentional yet inherent misogyny in this rendering, calibrated specifically for the dual titillation and repulsion of the male gaze.

Opening with the film’s only moment of joy, a cheerful ditty announces the eternal bliss of Jean and Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama and Katsuyuki Ito), a peasant couple about to be married. However, they’re unable to afford the customary marriage tax which must be paid to the local baron (Masaya Takahashi). The baron’s cruel wife, jealous of the peasant woman’s incredible beauty, suggests the baron not only engage his prima nocta rights and claim her chastity, but allow all the other villagers access to her before she may return to her husband. Nearly ruining their marriage before it’s begun, the desolate Jeanne follows in Faust’s footsteps, engaging Satan in a bargain after the cheerful evildoer appears to her in the shape of a small phallus-like being, confirming through her will, he will grow. Exchanging earthly pleasures for survival techniques and magical powers to heal, Jeanne grows to be a feared pariah of the community until the Black Death ravages the land and her secrets involving the poison from the Belladonna flower allows her to save many people. Her reputation alarms the baron’s wife once more, who calls for the bewitched peasant woman to be scourged beneath the bowels of the castle until her flesh relinquishes the devil.

No description of what transpires on screen within the frames of Belladonna of Sadness can quite do it justice, but suffice it to say those with tastes for the extremely offbeat should relish this daring, eventually hysterical odyssey. Sexually perverse but not nearly as tawdry or gratuitous as described, Yamamoto skirts around the problematic exploitation of the female body by maintaining the perturbing, alarming core of woman as a controlled object, her desirability a double edged sword which allows her little agency. And though Satan crawls in and out of the frame, he’s never on hand as a preemptive fixture, instead gleefully sidling into her bed so she may be allowed to volley slight recourse. Countless approximations of vaginal imagery also abound, but there’s nothing innately sexy about what’s happening on screen, instead presenting sexual congress as a means of necessary yet unbalanced exchange for woman, with the ultimate prize represented as Satan breaking down Jeanne so she offers herself as his wife but of her own free will.

And although Belladonna of Sadness surpasses its own confounding limits by mutating in a rather endless (arguably tedious) montage of psychedelic, orgiastic mash-ups (including a complete break in tone where the film warps into an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spasm), it contains an endless array of striking, unforgettable imagery. Jeanne’s rape sequence is more distressing than most live-action attempts of such a devastating act, her pale white body torn asunder by the pulsing, blood-red screen, the pool shattering into a clot of bats. Likewise, the penis-shaped devil is another introduction to behold in awe as a creepy, weird, and a significant visual metaphor.

Although the film’s bold, lascivious worship of Jeanne’s body equates to the same desecration enacted upon her as the actions of the cruel royals (the cartoon baron slightly resembles a perpetually sour Bill Nighy) and fickle villagers, it cannot be championed as the feminist promulgation Yamamoto hints at. However, it’s an audacious artifact from a fallen studio, hailing from a vintage era of antiquated acceptable representations—but it’s also one of the most resplendent and sublime theatrical releases, restoration or otherwise, you might see this year.

Disc Review:

Cinelicious presents this new 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative. Picture and sound quality are fantastic, as the transfer retains the Yamamoto’s vintage flavors. Several extra features are definitely worth exploring, including an additional eight minutes of footage from the original negative.

Yamamoto Interview:
Eiichi Yamamoto grants this twenty-three minute interview, discussing his early beginnings, which included a love for manga.

Fukai Interview:
Art director Kuni Fukai gives this sixteen minute interview, discussing early influences and development in oil paints and interests in manga.

Satoh Interview:
Composer Masahiko Satoh sits for this twenty-seven minute interview, a very spry, well-spoken seventy-three year old, his early days with piano, and love of jazz before eventually composing scores for film.

Final Thoughts:

The devil’s in the details of this sublime bit of animated perversity, deliciously restored in all its perverse carnality.

Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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