Loosely based on Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière (Satanism and Witchcraft) which reframed the idea of the witch as a revolutionary opposition to the oppression of the feudalistic system and the intense religiosity of the Catholic church, Belladonna of Sadness (哀しみのベラドンナ, Kanashimi no Belladonna) was, shall we say, under appreciated at the time of its original release even being credited with the eventual bankruptcy of its production studio. Begun as the third in the Animerama trilogy of adult orientated animations produced by legendary manga artist Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Productions, Belladonna of Sadness is the only one of the three with which Tezuka was not directly involved owing to having left the company to return to manga. Consequently the animation sheds his characteristic character designs for something more akin to Art Nouveau elegance mixed with countercultural psychedelia and pink film compositions. Feminist rape revenge fairytale or an exploitative exploration of the “demonic” nature of female sexuality and empowerment, Belladonna of Sadness is not an easily forgettable experience.
Beginning in true fairytale fashion with a gentle voiceover, the tale introduces us to Jean (Katsutaka Ito) and Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama), two ordinary medieval French peasants blissfully in love. Being the good, honest, Christian kids they are, they want to get married but as we’re told, this is the beginning of the story, not its end. Following tradition to the letter the pair turn up at the castle with their families to inform the Baron of their union and pay the marriage tax but the Baron takes a fancy to Jeanne and whacks up the price to a level Jean could never pay even if the entire village sold everything they had to help him, so that the Baron may exercise his droit du seigneur by claiming Jeanne’s maidenhead. After kicking everyone else out the Baron brutally rapes Jeanne before letting all of his cronies have a go too.
Finally crawling home bruised, broken, and violated Jeanne seeks comfort from her gentle husband Jean but despite his fine words, he is unable to accept what has happened and eventually retreats from her. At this point the weirdness begins as Jeanne’s intense inner rage and sadness summons forth a tiny demon friend who looks just like an overly friendly penis and also grows in size a little bit when you stroke him in just the right way. This starts Jeanne on her ultimate path towards becoming a master sorceress and eventual mistress of the devil himself. Jeanne’s fortunes rise in line with her sexual empowerment but an empowered female is not always popular with the ruling elite.
Jeanne’s empowerment and the subsequent threat it poses to the accepted political fabric is the main thrust of the narrative but it’s also important to remember that the process began with a brutal act of rape. Jeanne continues to be raped by her ever growing demon friend until achieving a kind of oneness with the Devil himself but the unwanted acts of Jeanne’s “demon”, who describes himself simply as a part of Jeanne, are mitigated because she is depicted as enjoying them (only guilt makes her say otherwise) and, after all, they form part of her sexual education. Jeanne’s power stems from the intense resentment she feels at her continued lack of agency, eventually buying her power and status enough to threaten the Baron and all he stands for.
Even if Jeanne’s power comes from the darkest of places, everything she uses it for is morally good (at least from a “modern” standpoint). When the Baron returns from a war to find Jeanne ruling the roost, he attempts to canvass some of his subjects hoping to hear tales of her cruelty or ineptitude but finds only praise. Jeanne heals the sick, helps a couple with too many children find a solution to maintain their married harmony without the risk of bearing any more, and even helps an elderly woman make contact with the depths of hell (wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, but she was thrilled to bits anyway).
The worst thing Jeanne’s power provokes is the large scale and extremely strange orgy which takes place in her hair, sees her copulating with the entire village, and even transforms genitals into bizarre creatures. This purely pleasurable exercise, even if against the prevailing moral code, has no real world consequences such as a failed harvest or ruined city brought about by the villager’s abandonment of duty for physical pleasure.
However filled with “goodness” her actions are, Jeanne herself is branded a witch and the only reason she is not burned at the stake immediately is that the Baron and his advisors fear that if Jeanne is burned whilst still bound to the devil, the demonic elements inside her will be set free and could “pollute” the other women in the village with a nasty desire to be taken seriously as people. This fear is later borne out as each of the village women emerges with Jeanne’s impassive face before time jumps on a few hundred years to the French Revolution and its vanguard of valiant women seeking social justice as evidenced by Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting Victory Leading the People which forms the final image of the film.
Belladonna of Sadness seems conflicted over whether this kind of empowerment is a good thing or not. Jeanne’s journey begins with violence which gives birth to rage and an eventual “succumbing” to the dark arts which facilitates her revenge. Everything about Jeanne becomes satanic and her sexuality is the weapon which she wields against male subjugation. The empowered Jeanne is independently monstrous, rather than just monstrous to the Baron and the true forces of evil, thanks to her involvement with illicit supernatural entities. Her independent spirit does indeed pollinate as the Baron feared it might, but whether these women are to be read as having been “freed” or as vengeful harpies robbing men of their rightful place whilst intent on upending the social order, might be a matter for debate.
Yamamoto opts for a mix of styles making great use of still paintings and more primitive animation to enhance the effect. Combined with the very contemporary sounding folk music, the later ventures into the realm of psychedelia lend the film a new age fable quality to present a broadly feminist rape revenge fairytale. However, this particular story offers no happy ending for its heroine even if it does retroactively add one in the form of the ongoing social change her various transgressions engender. Wildly experimental, often extremely beautiful, and necessarily explicit, Belladonna of Sadness is, as its name suggests, a melancholy tale but one just as passionately free as its tragic heroine.
Cinelicious Pics restoration trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)