In 1973, the Japanese Mushi Productions decided to adapt a French book by Jules Michelet on the history of witchcraft into an animated film, but this is no straight adaptation; instead it uses the history and Michelet's accounts of pagan women leaders as a starting point for a bizarre, psychedelic sexual fable that became Belladonna of Sadness. The film went on to be a commercial failure and in fact bankrupted Mushi Productions and was rarely seen. Luckily for us, Belladonna has undergone a new 4K transfer and will be screening this May in limited release in the U.S., which allows a new perspective on this strange film.
The movie tells the story of Jeanne, a beautiful peasant woman whose marriage to Jean is stopped short by the baron of the town for the ruling class to ritually rape her as a sort of marriage tax. While Jeanne tries to move past this to start their lives together, Jean cannot; the only option Jeanne sees to make things better is to make a deal with the devil, who appears to her as a small phallic creature in the night. Over time, Jeanne must concede more and more of herself to Satan, until she becomes a powerful witch in the nearby forest. Much to the baron's dismay, much of the town worships her rather than him, which brings their conflict to it's climax, which ends by making a connection between Jeanne and Joan of Arc.
Belladonna of Sadness starts as many Japanese films of the time do, with a song that shares the title of the film, but as soon as the animation begins it is clear this is not your typical anime. The art is only animated about 50% of the time; the bulk of the story is told through still watercolor paintings around which the camera moves. The animation, while inconsistent, is strange and beautiful. The still image sections play like the old animated children's books, and make the parts with movement stand out even further. By the time the film reaches it's psychedelic climax, the viewer is subjected to thousands of cartoonish imagery in quick succession. Combined with the funky Japanese rock music that accompanies it, the film often feels like the visual experiments of Frank Zappa or Pink Floyd.
This film's potential audience might be pretty small; it's a strange film that could definitely be interpreted as unwatchable or even sexist. But I think there's something very interesting here, an experiment both in animation and storytelling in general that takes a sort of kitchen sink approach to animation style to reflect the changing moods and sections of the story. Although the connection to Joan of Arc in the last 30 seconds feels like an unwarranted left turn rather than the mind-blowing reveal it is likely intended to be, there is a lot to thematically dig into here. From the portrayal of the devil as a virile man to the elevation of Jeanne to near goddess state by embracing an anti-authoritarian sexuality, the film should be understood as a feminist work, one that challenges the way women are typically portrayed in sexually charged anime, as victims of aggressive male sexuality.
Belladonna of Sadness is bound to make many uncomfortable or bored, but as a lost piece of Japanese cinema it's odd LSD fueled hallucinations are worth revisiting.