‘Belladonna of Sadness’ comes to Brattle
Rarely-seen classic of Japanese animation gets a 4K restoration and a limited run
TW: sexual assault
The hugely influential yet rarely seen Belladonna of Sadness comes to Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre Fri 5.13 through Mon 5.16 following a dazzling 4K restoration. Much like the prettiness of word “belladonna” (literally “beautiful woman”) belies the deadly nature of the nightshade, so does the visual beauty of Belladonna of Sadness amplify the dire weight of its moral, social, and political underpinnings. Extremely explicit both in the acts it depicts and the emotions it conveys, as well as unrelentingly committed to its message, Belladonna of Sadness earns its place in the pantheon of revisionist depictions of witchcraft as the empowerment of women in reaction to social and societal disenfranchisement.
The most memorable images of the film leave an impression not just due to their striking technique but for the deep, visceral reactions they invoke within the viewer. Early on, our heroine Jeanne is raped on her wedding night by the local baron. The severity of the violation — not only of her body but of her innocence and the joy she felt as a newlywed — is depicted as her body being ripped in two. Later, an unexpected presence comes to Jeanne with a message of hope: Satan, appearing as a phallic demon of various sizes. He is certainly imposing but not frightening, showing her that her identity is not yet lost and her sexuality is her own. During a key scene in which Jeanne finds herself in a serene woodland setting surrounded by lush flowers after exchanging her soul for the power taken from her, she initially screams in disbelief that surrendering herself to her innermost nature would be anything but an ugly, disfiguring experience.
Everything about this film, from conception to execution, is jarring; its director, Eiichi Yamamoto, made his name working on family-friendly anime like Astro Boy, suddenly shifting his focus to sexually explicit animated epics in the 1970s. The film is based on Jules Michelet’s 1863 nonfiction work Satanism and Witchcraft, which took the view that witchcraft in Europe was an expression of political and social rebellion, particularly society’s treatment of women. Belladonna of Sadness, initially released in 1973, came at the height of the so-called “pinky violence” genre in Japan, a term used to describe a subgenre of exploitation films that often depicted women retaliating against powerful men that harmed them and society that enabled their abuse.
One key difference between Belladonna of Sadness and its contemporary exploitation films is that many rape-revenge stories of the day took a pornographic glee in the more graphic scenes, thus betraying the purported themes of empowerment. Belladonna of Sadness is certainly explicit, but the camera never treats its heroine as an object to be gazed upon or pitied. The result is not exactly erotica, but an investigation into the relationship between structural power versus personal empowerment.
Much of the film is told through scrolling, static murals running right to left (the direction Japanese is written) as though it were historical text. The message here is clear: this is less a recounting of the individual tragedy of Jeanne as it is a recounting of a tale that has repeated itself throughout time, yet it is a pattern that can be broken.
BELLADONNA OF SADNESS. BRATTLE THEATRE, 40 BRATTLE ST., HARVARD SQ., CAMBRIDGE. FRI 5.13 thru MON 5.16. FOR TIX AND SHOWTIMES, VISIT BRATTLEFILM.ORG.