A surreal, psychodelic, exploitative, erotic fantasy film with feminist undertones, Belladonna of Sadness is a somber, yet masterful look at society in the Middle Ages in Europe. Particularly it commentates on the state of women, by showing a poor woman’s downward spiral at the oppression and objectification by basically everyone around her, and then her rise to power when she decides to embrace her outward appearance and use it to command power over those who held her down.
The Movie (4/5)
Belladonna of Sadness is a really interesting film, even before you put it in and push play. The history of the film itself is fascinating to learn about. Having come out in 1973, Belladonna arrived at the tail end of a highly experimental phase of Japanese animation. Varying art styles and acceptance of erotic storytelling coupled with psychedelic counter culture music made for some trippy films during this time, and Belladonna stands out as one of the best. Ironically, at the time it had struggled to find a foothold in the theatrical circuit, but now, many years later, it is getting the release it deserves.
Following the life of a woman in the Middle Ages in Europe, this is not a happy story. We begin our tale at a wedding between this Jeanne and Jean, two poor farmers who are madly in love. However, when they go to their lord for a blessing, they cannot afford the number of cows to sacrifice, so instead Jean is booted from the castle and Jeanne gets raped by the higher caste. Jean struggles to accept this and distances himself, while Jeanna seeks out a pact with the devil in order to get her love back.
While highly depressing, and oddly erotic, this film holds a mirror up to the viewer which is perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the film. Based on a book critiquing the time period, and how women were treated, the commentary can still very much apply to today. Jeanne’s beauty is both a gift and a curse, even though it takes the better part of the film and several interactions with the lust-filled Devil himself before she realizes that she can draw power from her allure over men. Throughout the entire film you see her transition from the victim to a sexual predator, using her body and looks as a statement against the lords who had taken everything from her.
Apart from the social commentary here, this movie is a bit on the bizarre end of the spectrum. In what is reminiscent of the old J.R.R. Tolkien animated films, a lot of 70’s culture is present and intermixed with the story. Pyschodelic music brings on a sense of unease, and the many sex scenes range from sexy to uncomfortable and hard to watch, which is exactly what the filmmakers had gone for, I’m sure.
I’m not going to recommend this for everyone, there is certainly plenty of triggers here for those who are sensitive to topics such as rape, Satan, and witches. But if you are comfortable with the explicit content, this film actually does a surprisingly good job of sending a message loud and clear across, and it does so in a beautifully drawn way that will keep your attention throughout.
The Picture 4/5
Displaying the 1970’s trippy Japanese watercolor and hand drawn/painted look on blu-ray works surprisingly well. The animation style is incredibly simple; many scenes are just large watercolor paintings in which the camera pans around, displaying a surprising amount of motion without actually having any. Individual brushstrokes can be seen, as well as the texture of the paper and paint, which adds a very tangible look to this movie. The art is absolutely gorgeous, even if it is dated. The only downside to this film is that it is presented as it was created – in 1.32:1, leaving empty black real estate on either side of the screen (as you can see in the screenshots). Nevertheless, this film is beautiful; extremely dark, but still beautiful.
The Sound 4/5
Presented in a Japanese DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio track, this film sounds a bit dated, but that is to be expected given the age of the movie. However, when compared to other films of the time, the audio track holds up really well. There is no dropouts or distortion, and everything was mixed well. The trippy soundtrack really works here and adds a real charm to the presentation.
The Features & Packaging 4/5
Cinelicious Pics, as with previous releases, has put this release in a clear blu-ray case similar to what we see with Drafthouse Films. This gives their releases a nice look on the shelf and makes them stand out. There is art on both sides of the sleeve, as well as art on the disc. Also included is a 16 page booklet with several stills from the movie and a very well written and interesting essay about the film’s history.
As far as special features are concerned, included are:
- Original 1972 Trailer
- U.S. Theatrical Trailer (Green Band)
- U.S. Theatrical Trailer (Red Band)
- Interview with Director Eiichi Yamamoto
- Interview with Art Director Kuni Fukai
- Interview with Composer Masahiko Satoh
I really enjoyed watching and comparing the trailers, especially the differences between U.S. red and green band presentations. Movie trailers have massively changed over the years, and this film is such a different thing to what you normally see in a trailer today.
However, the big win here is the three new and exclusive interviews with the director, composer, and art director. Each of these legends speak between 18 and 30 minutes in length about their careers, Belladonna, and the social climate of Japan in the 1970s, which ends up being extremely fascinating to hear about. If you are at all interested in more history of this type of animation, these are likely worth the pickup alone.
The Verdict 4/5
Belladonna of Sadness is not for everyone, as it is quite explicit; but for those who are comfortable with a dark, erotic fantasy, this release is absolutely something to look into. It is engaging, beautiful (albeit in a darker, heavier way than you may be used to), and very unique. Throw in some interesting interviews discussing a unique and interesting time in animation, and Cinelicious’ nice packaging and praiseworthy transfer, and you have a great package.
Note: This Blu Ray was sent to us for review. This has not affected our judgement or editorial process in any way. Please contact us if you have any questions regarding this process.