Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness is not a learning film. It will not reveal new truths about the essence of your being that you were previously unaware of. It will not teach you anything about your fellow man or about the human condition. It will, however, give you an idea of what a psychedelic drug trip might look like, sans the hallucinatory experience in which your pants unbutton, slide off your legs, and neatly fold atop your dresser of their own volition. (It also lasts a scant 85 minutes.) The film can be reasonably described as a product of both its era, the 1970s, and its creator, the legendary co-parent of anime and manga alongside animator Osamu Tezuka. Whether that makes it less of a brain melt is another thing entirely.
Between 1969 and 1973, the pair collaborated on the Animerama series, a trio of animated films made with adult bents and focused on adult themes. Their efforts began with A Thousand and One Nights, continued with Cleopatra, and ended with Belladonna of Sadness, each of which can be variably categorized by single-word qualifiers that denote their existential statuses: “Lost,” “rare,” “unreleased.” The good news is that Belladonna of Sadness is lost no longer, having been restored and released for our viewing pleasure by the people at Cinelicious Pics. For any hardcore cinephile, the archaeological accomplishment alone is reason to seek out the film as it does the theatrical rounds in the United States. Its unbridled surreality is merely icing.
Except that it isn’t. It’s the phantasmagoric cake. When we talk about movies that must be seen to be believe, we are talking about movies like Belladonna of Sadness. The language of letters is ill-equipped for translating the film’s particulars, peculiarities and perplexities to a reading audience. It is simple enough to say that little of the movie is actually animated, as Yamamoto built his visual landscape on a collection of absolutely gorgeous still images that his cinematographer, Shigeru Yamazaki, carefully pans across, which lends those images a sense of movement even if they are static by their very nature. And yes, it’s easy to talk about Belladonna of Sadness’ color scheme, the mesmeric vibes of its free jazz soundtrack, its wanton use of phallic symbolism, or its fascination with Satan and witchcraft. But prattling on about those details does them very little justice on paper. Yamamoto’s vision is singularly bananas.
The film is about a young woman, Jeanne, who is subjected to the cruel tyranny of prima nocta on her wedding night, and thereafter forms an unwilling relationship with Old Nick himself in the pursuit of getting even with her tormentors. That’s about as succinct a plot synopsis as you need, or deserve, before diving into Belladonna of Sadness. In Yamamoto’s movie, sensation trumps plot and other structural attributes that we think of as key when we think of narrative fiction. In point of fact, you can comfortably check your basic storytelling expectations at the door: Yamamoto spins drama out of incomprehensible comprehensibility. Belladonna of Sadness makes sense, but only if you’re willing to meet it on its own level.
Houses wash away under roiling tidal waves of inky doom, Jeanne crawls through underbrush that strikes and harasses her as she passes through, an entire village engages in an orgy of genitalic mutation: Penises either wrap around each other and spiral into the sky, or shapeshift into giraffes and tongues, while vaginas shoot salvos of fish or transform into lions. All of this and no mention yet of Satan, who is first introduced as a tiny critter with an uncanny resemblance to (surprise!) the male member, and later turns into a towering being of recognizably demonic origins. That’s the stuff that you’re seeing Belladonna of Sadness for first and foremost—not for its depictions of female subjugation, but for its brassy weirdness and its free-flowing kink.
But of course it’s impossible to divorce the film’s aesthetic from its text, to engage its eroticism without engaging its sexual abuses, and to ignore its studied portrayal of witchery. Belladonna of Sadness is almost scholarly, or it would be were it not so off-the-wall and cheeky. Feminine liberation, couched in the practices of witchcraft, is an act of rebellion against the oppression of patriarchal rule. To Yamamoto specifically, it is Jeanne’s declaration of sovereignty over the body. Yet everything about his film that is real is subsumed by everything that isn’t. Ultimately, you won’t walk out of the theater and consider the statements Belladonna of Sadness makes about gender equality and social protest. You’ll be too bewildered waiting for the comedown.
Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Writers: Eiichi Yamamoto, Yoshiyuki Fukuda
Starring: Aiko Nagayama, Katsutaka Ito, Tatsuya Tashiro, Tatsuya Nakadai, Masaya Takahashi
Release Date: June 30, 1973 (Japan); May 6, 2016 (NY); May 13, 2016 (LA)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.