An overview of the 1973 cult classic anime film Belladonna of Sadness, famous for its psychedelic imagery and feminist themes that inspired future anime directors.
Happy newlyweds Jeanne and Jean find their matrimony taken from them on their wedding night when the bride is raped by a baron and his underlings. Jeanne, soon finding herself craving her lost agency, makes friends with a morally ambiguous phallic devil. Soon, she gains powers that both raise her social standing and make her infamous around the village, eventually leading her to being persecuted and chased into the woods.
A 1973 X-rated arthouse film that recently found itself a remaster and limited release, Belladonna of Sadness is a film that I’m personally glad I went into knowing as little as possible about. You see, if there’s one adjective that you’ve probably heard associated with this film, it’s “trippy,” and, well, it is. It’s a cavalcade of color and visual experiments that make the thing seem like it’s straight out of a weird Beatles song. That being said, the jarring nature of the movie winds up being thematically resonant and works to the film’s credit. I’ll add to this by saying that while the particular choices made with the film’s animation (or lack thereof) aesthetic may come across as slightly perturbing at first, you can’t help but to be drawn in. The stunning, carefully incorporated color palette only helps to punctuate the various color symbolism throughout the film.
While the limited budget and painful production may have left this film feeling somewhat jarring for anyone not expecting the *literal* slideshow animation that we’re left with (save for the sex scenes, which are virtually the only thing that’s animated), the sound design and soundtrack are enough to pull you right into the films atmosphere. The soundtrack itself makes use of creative use of various melodies throughout the film that manages to be thematically pertinent and just plain lively. And for what it is, the film itself manages to be absolutely hypnotic with its psychedelic visuals and pacing.
The structure itself is also somewhat unconventional (not that I really expected anything else), with the narrative being almost interrupted on occasion. It takes the viewer out of the plot several times, and other little conventions are played with and broken. This, combined with the funky visual language makes the film absolutely a cozy fit for its origin in the 70s. And, well, now that I think of it, the feminist themes don’t hurt that assertion either.
The movie itself is somewhat melodramatic, with pathos being punctuated by beautiful color schemes that have their own symbolic language in the movie. It’s even made fairly explicit at times just what the creator wanted the viewer to think of whatever a character is wearing or why someone’s hair constantly changes color. The rape scenes manage to be legitimately horrifying and intrusive, incorporating body horror and a relative lack of score that only draws attention to the act. The uncomfortable nature of it is only punctuated on the big screen. But, for what it’s worth, the film even has a good amount of humor. The *primary* orgy scene, which easily goes on for three minutes or so is like something straight out of Superbad, complete with cartoonish dicks with little wings flying across the screen.
And there are just so many dicks. Dicks on top, dicks all around. I’m being as literal about this as possible. They’re drawn on top of each other at times. The devil in this story is also a literal phallus, undulating and growing throughout the film. Frames incorporating some sort of phallic symbol come flying at you a mile a minute. Some may say hard and fast (Hehe. I had to get that out of my system).
The second most common form of symbolism is the Belladonna flower, which is both a healing mechanism and a poison. I don’t wanna spoil things, but I’ll say that the film is pretty brilliant into how Belladonna incorporates gender essentialism into its internal symbology and themes.
Wait a sec- blatant flower symbolism. Themes exploring patriarchal oppression and female sexuality. Gee, I wonder what this could possibly be reminiscent of.
Yeah, this film is also well known for inspiring various other directors, famously including Kunihiko Ikuhara. And, well, without getting too deep into it, the inspiration is kinda plain to see. Utena and Yurikuma certainly would not have been the same without it (and that’s, uh, fairly appropriate considering the ending).
I am incredibly appreciative of this film’s recent remaster and re-release, in addition to its cult status and eventual influence to other creators. It wasn’t for nothing, Mushi Production. And if you’ll allow me to get on a bit of a tangent for a second, keep in mind that it has been easily over a week since my viewing of this film to actually sitting down to write, and a good 80 percent of those visuals are thoroughly burned into my brain. I’ll just say that I don’t believe a re-watch will be necessary any time soon. Take that as you will.
I give this film a thumbs up to anyone looking for a story about a kick ass women fighting against The Man, and for anyone appreciative of the benefit in seeing how this could have inspired Ikuhara and his various works.
The long and short? This unique cult classic is recommended both for your next LSD trip and next gender studies course, even if you’ll eventually have a hard time mustering up the energy for a re-watch. Check it out if you have any showings near you.