Forty years after its original release in Asia and Europe, four decades after this initial commercial failure bankrupted its production studio, the psycho-sexual phantasmagoria, Belladonna of Sadness, finally arrives on American movie screens. The sexually explicit animated film charts one woman’s erotic journey from hamlet to Hell, as she is abused by her village’s male-dominated power structure until she finds some semblance of solace in the arms of Satan himself.
Despite some serious drawbacks, teaming up with the Devil really seems like the lesser of two evils here. While the protagonist Jeanne is certainly seduced and manipulated by Satan (voiced with impish delight by film legend Tatsuya Nakadai) the Devil also gives her power and refuses to simply take her soul, patiently waiting for her to release it to him instead. Allowing the decision to be Jeanne’s choice stands as a stark rebuttal to the lord of the village, whose modus operandi at every turn boils down to rape.
Belladonna of Sadness was released the same year as another Japanese depiction of feminine suffering, Toshiya Fujita’s influential Lady Snowblood. It is tempting to suggest a paired screening of the films but the audience subjected to such a display of grief likely will be overcome with despair and commit ritual suicide. Still, it might be worth it. Unlike Lady Snowblood‘s roots in manga, Belladonna of Sadness is based on a work not originating in Japan, specifically the writings of French historian Jules Michelet, whose non-fiction book Satanism and Witchcraft was the foundation of the mystical elements integral to the movie. The film aligns itself even more with France when its conclusion overtly equates Jeanne with that country’s most iconic hero.
Prior to the climax, the film runs through a few different animation styles, most of the time using still drawings stained with watercolors that fade into one another or scroll laterally across the screen. But this style is disrupted on a number of occasions, most notably when Jeanne and Satan consummate their affair and the film explodes into a kaleidoscope of tripped-out imagery, like a pornographic Yellow Submarine. The overall look of the film is aligned with Western art history, with a particular nod to Gustav Klimt, instead of traditional Japanese art or other anime. The psych-rock soundtrack is a highlight, with a half dozen jams that are just waiting for Quentin Tarantino to steal.
While Belladonna of Sadness contains many graphic scenes of rape and abuse, the most powerful statement arrives with a deft sort of subtlety. The moment of greatest significance in the film arrives after Jeanne receives her dark powers from Satan. She is seen using witchcraft to enact a number of spells. She could use this magic to kill people or make herself invincible but instead she provides birth control and empowers the villagers with more sexual freedom. Only at this point is it decided by the elite that Jeanne must be destroyed. She became a threat by liberating the people.