“Belladonna of Sadness” is an animation film from 1973 which had not been released in the US until now for multiple reasons, one most likely being due to the nudity and sex. The style of animation is reminiscent of watercolor paintings with a touch of 70s/80s anime. The film is a mix of painted images being panned across and moving parts which makes for mesmerizing visuals. The restoration looks fantastic and the attention to details put into it show the work thousand of hours spent on it brought in terms of colors, visuals, and feelings.
Jeanne and Jean have very little in life and find themselves in an even worse situation after they get married without an appropriate donation to the local ruler. Jeanne makes a reluctant at first pact with the Devil in which she gains magical powers which in turn help her gain respect and power, scaring the people in charge. The story is based on a novel by Jules Michelet, adapted for the film by Yoshiyuki Fukuda and director Eiichi Yamamoto. Yamamoto also worked on Space Cruiser Yamato III from which some will recognize the female character’s look which was also seen in recent years in music videos from acts such as Daft Punk.
The story refers to other powerful historical female figures who were accused of witchcraft when they were misunderstood and feared. Here the story is told in a slightly trippy manner which adds to the mood and atmosphere of the film. This is done through the images, music, and character development. The story does this by having themes of witchcraft and female power and sexuality mixed with the powers of nature and of good versus evil. These bring up how throughout history, women who gained respect and power like Jeanne does here were (and still are in some parts of the world unfortunately) accused of witchcraft and dealings with the Devil, then were hunted and often killed for it.
The Japanese voice cast is composed of Tatsuya Nakadai as The Devil, Aiko Nagayama as Jeanne, and Katsuyuki Ito as Jean in the leads who all do well making the characters’ emotions come through even when one depends on the subtitles to understand what is said. Their ton of voice conveys much more than one usually thinks of for film, which is very important as we do not see their facial expressions. The music by Masahiko Sato adds to the atmosphere of the film and to the emotions, helping these emotions come through more clearly. It also adds to the overall feeling of film, going in tandem with the images and the mood from the beautiful watercolors.
These watercolors feel lush and like some of them belong in books or museums. They bring so much to the story, they need to be seen. One image in this film tells much more than the spoken word or music. The colors are mellow, yet they influence the mood of each scene. Scenes in hell have redder hues, scenes in nature have natural, serene hues.
Belladonna of Sadness is a film worth watching as it is beautiful and emotional, however it is not for everyone as it contains mature subject matters presented in its animation which some may want to avoid. It’s a story worth at least one watch even if these aspects are not for you as the trippy watercolor animation should keep anyone’s attention.
For fans of Japanese anime, it’s a must-see to learn more about the genre, to see a “lost” piece of art and history, and get more familiar with the genre’s 70s offerings which were not all geared toward children. Please be aware that it’s considered part of the Pinku sub-genre of animation (often related to porn), however Belladonna of Sadness is very mild on that front.