The Tragedy of Belladonna

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Belladonna of Sadness (?????????, Kanashimi no Belladonna) (1973) –an animated Japanese art house film by director Eiichi Yamamoto– is a rare and beautiful, though polarizing piece of avant-garde cinema.

A sexploitative, psychedelic rock opera set in the Middle Ages, the synopsis for Belladonna of Sadness from various internet sites describes it thusly: “The beautiful peasant woman Jeanne is raped by a demonic overlord on her wedding night. Spurned by her husband, she has no outlet for her awakened libido, which develops to give her powers of witchcraft.” and “…in her powerlessness she is gradually driven to ancient superstitions and satanic practices, and then accused, tortured and executed for witchcraft. ”

With striking visuals not unlike a Beardsley illustration or Klimt painting, it is more a fluid tableaux of watercolor elegance than actual moving animation.  Despite the bewitching, breathtaking art, one never loses sight that it is a tragic story of unrelenting cruelty and despair. At certain points, it is an almost excruciating watch.

According to :

Belladonna is an adaptation of La Sorcière, the 1862 novelized history of satanism and witchcraft in the late middle ages. The book was written by feminist, freethinker, and Frenchman Jules Michelet, who, like many other post-revolution French intellectuals, was eager to condemn the barbaric European forces of the prior few centuries. In Michelet’s story, the practice of witchcraft is not simply the leftover trace of ancient pagan traditions, but an active rebellion against an oppressive church and system of government. …According to Michelet, the spirit of rebellion and experimentation found in 14th century witchcraft was a progenitor of the enlightenment values yet to come. Furthermore, this was a movement led by women, those who likely suffered the most at the hands of the church and the feudal system.”

“The film adaptation of La Sorcière is often very faithful to the book…It tells the story of an archetypal witch (unnamed in the book, named Jeanne in the movie) who suffers a series of misfortunes that lead her down the path from being a chaste, obedient peasant’s wife, to giving in to her awakened earthly desires, to finally blossoming into the bride of Satan himself. The process of selling one’s soul to the Devil can be interpreted literally or metaphorically, but keep in mind that at least according to Michelet, those who would enter into such a pact in the middle ages presumably believed they were literally sacrificing eternity for just a glimmer of relief from a cruel and bleak life… Her relationship with the Devil may be nothing but a psychological coping mechanism for the brutality she suffers.”

Is Belladonna of Sadness a misogynistic sleaze-fest, a surreal feminist empowerment message, or a stylistic gem of exquisite curiosity? Perhaps a baffling hybrid of all of these things? Repeated viewings do not make the question any easier to answer.  Those fortunate enough to find a (subtitled) copy may judge for themselves; in the meantime, several film stills can be found below.

8 Responses to “The Tragedy of Belladonna”

  1. Drax Says:

    And this one too?! I’ve never seen this damn film, always wanted to. I’d die to get my hands on a copy. DIE

  2. Mer Says:

    Yep! S.E.’s on a roll today! Rawr!!!

  3. Daryl Surat Says:

    In 2007 I reviewed this film for my podcast. It’s a spectacularly unique fiasco of a film, as the failure of it and two other lavish theatrical films previously released by the same studio–Mushi Productions, created by the late Osamu Tezuka–effectively killed the company:

    Roughly 48 hours ago during a historical overview presentation of such “erotica” animations, the footage from Belladonna was met with more bewilderment than any other film shown. I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone see it, but I can safely say there is no other film like it I’ve encountered.

  4. Drax Says:

    BELLADONNA was released by MUSHI?! HOLY FREAKIN CRAP!!!!!!!

    (Mushi came back with new financing in the early 80’s BTW.)

  5. Jay Says:

    After reading this post I searched for it online and watched it and all I can say is WOW. This film was beautiful and heart wrenching. In some ways it’s inspirational. I am planning to watch this again right after I read that book by Jules Michelet.

    If you want you can see the film here, you would just have to download the Veoh player:

  6. Asher Says:

    Just watched it at the above link. As a film student I’m glad I did, I think I learned something new about movies and what they can be. However I didn’t emotionally connect to it at all, which surprised me considering the themes.

  7. daphaknee Says:

    i love this movie

    me and harveyjames did a co review of it which is actually just us talking on aim while watching the movie

    when i get the rare chance to explain anime to someone, i just show them belladonna of sadness and tell them all anime is like that

  8. lizzelizzel Says:

    Daphne, that review was amazing. Hahahaha, thanks for linking that up!