Belladonna of Mixed Emotions
Belladonna of Sadness (1973) is an unusual movie for a few reasons. First off, it’s an animated movie from Japan yet the style of animation is clearly heavily influenced by the western style of the times, with the main female character looking an awful lot like Brigitte Bardot. Secondly, being an animated movie from the seventies, it is quite psychedelic but in a strange mixture of nightmarish and maudlin. Finally, due to its limited release even around the time it was made, there are a few different versions floating around with different run times and removed scenes. It is an experience, to be sure, but not necessarily one that’s suitable for everyone.
The movie has a fairly simple plot, lovers Jean and Jeanne are recently married as the film opens. It’s so early in their marriage that they haven’t even had sex yet and before they can consummate, Jeananne is raped by a local baron in what is portrayed as an almost ritualistic attack. Both Jean and Jeanne end up emotionally scarred from the attack. Jean tries to comfort his new wife by insisting they can put all this behind them and move forward as partners. Considering the name of the movie is "Belladonna of Sadness," you get three guess at how well that goes.
Jean is working as a tax collector for the baron (yep, same one) and the couple enjoy a brief bit of good fortune as the rest of the town struggles. The baron raises taxes in order to build his army and fund endless wars (which is never something that would happen in real life nowadays, right folks?) and naturally cuts of Jean’s hand when he is unable to get any more money from the already starving villagers.
Upon seeing what has happened to her husband, Jeanne makes a deal with a spirit who has been appearing to her ever since the attack and has been whispering to her about taking revenge on the baron. She quickly becomes a powerhouse in the community but is soon driven out by the baron and his jealous wife who believes Jeanne to be a witch. In the woods that she’s been banished to, the spirit reveals itself as the devil and grants Jeanne the power to lead the villagers in a rebellion against the baron. If that sounds like a tidy and not-too-sad ending, it’s because I left out that Jean spurns Jeanne once she’s labeled a witch and the fact that the devil spirit is pretty rapey so even gaining power requires degradation on Jeanne’s part. Way to earn that title, movie.
Belladonna of Sadness is truly unique though that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s stellar. The endless stream of misery and abuse thrown at Jeanne wears very thin and when she does have agency over herself, she’s completely despondent. It’s hard to see if the movie was trying to show how awful people can be towards women in power, or warning women against amassing power. While either argument could be made, scene after scene depicting an image of a gorgeous woman being subjected to torture doesn’t really lend itself to the empowerment side of the debate.
However, the animation is really something to behold. It’s a strange and fluid variety where scenes flow into or on top of each other and have the runny look of water colors. The scenes of magic take a different approach and shut down the whole frame in blackness before exploding into day-glo.
Strictly as a visual rendering of a despicable act, the rape scenes are actually quite captivating. There is an image of a female form being ripped in half from the fork of her crotch upward with the occasional frame of a mouth silently screaming. It doesn’t show Jeanne’s face in its entirety (usually her head is thrown back so only her mouth is visible) except for a shot at the end of a tear running down her cheek. Though that last part could be seen as dehumanizing, it can also be argued at the removal of her identity until the end is representative of how society as a whole views women: as interchangeable objects. Seeing Jeanne’s quiet, tragic reaction is withering and the viewer knows she will somehow cobble herself back together and continue on.
The character design throughout is pretty realistic and the characters, for the most part, look like humans. Aside from the devil, the characters all have a realistic weight to them when they move and even the ones that appear with skull faces have something human about them. It’s clear that they are representative of corruption or evil or power yet we perceive them in human vessels. These aren’t creatures from another world here to do terrible things; these are humans here to do terrible things.
The devil and its many spirit forms doesn’t look human at all. In fact, when Jeanne first sees the spirit, it’s a phallic imp coaxing her into revenge. The offers of justice and power don’t really convince her but the desire to help her husband is what snags her and the penis spirit gets larger and more invasive as she begins to consider the offer. When the devil is in its full form, it’s an amorphous shadow that sometimes resembles a man and when Jeanne receives power, she becomes a horn-wearing dark queen not unlike the witch from Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Belladonna of Sadness is a movie that might work better for some without the sound on, so that the repetitive and slightly exploitative plot doesn’t interfere with the gorgeousness of the animation. The point of the story can be hard to parse out since it often feels like an excuse to create then abuse a beautiful woman, but there are so many scenes that show a really singular style of animation and a really stunning vision that it’s hard to dismiss outright. This may not be the animated movie for everyone but those who find a way to enjoy it will witness a truly uncommon piece of work and some eye-popping visuals in between the stretches of sheer and utter sadness.