Kanashimi no Belladonna, literally translated as 'Belladonna of Sadness' or figuratively as 'The Tragedy of Belladonna' is an avant-garde feature film produced by Mushi Production and directed/co-written by Eiichi Yamamoto in 1973. It was loosely inspired by the 1862 book La Sorcière (Satanism and Witchcraft) by French historian Jules Michelet. It's also the third and final installment in the Animerama trilogy conceived by manga god Osamu Tezuka, but is the only one that was neither written nor directed by him.
This isn't your typical anime by any stretch of the imagination. The rating is listed as Rx, but rest assured it isn't intended to induce erotic
pleasure in any way. It's a dark and twisted experimental sequence of art and storytelling that should be regarded with care.
Belladonna of Sadness tells the tragedy of the beautiful peasant woman Jeanne who was raped by the land baron of her village on her wedding night after the couple failed to meet marriage taxes. Spurned by her husband, she decided to make a pact with the devil to gain wealth and power, but not without facing certain consequences. Jeanne becomes a suspect of witchcraft, and is subsequently banished from her village by the baron.
However, with the village quickly becoming swallowed by the cusp of the bubonic plague the baron is forced to change his heart. He summons Jeanne back and offers her the rank of highest noble in return for her to rescue them from despair with the mysterious flower she possessed. Regardless, Jeanne's motives were altered by her painful experiences, and she refused to accept such an offer.. which ultimately leads to her fate and the pinnacle of the film.
The final scene ends with an image of Eugène Delacroix's 'La Liberté guidant le people.' The painting features a female personification of liberty itself, leading a mixture of social classes during the French Revolution. In the film Jeanne finds herself in a similar position, and her impact on society can be compared with that of Joan of Arc, Salem witch trials, and several prominent women in history.
This story is depicted rather well throughout the duration of the film and is often told metaphorically with symbolism rather than figuratively with speech. The nature of it is widely subjective, but compelling nonetheless.
The characters aren't a strong aspect of the film. The only truly memorable character is Jeanne, but like the others she lacks any real development. This doesn't hinder the experience in the end. They merely exist as a route of administration for the lessons and morals lurking in the shadows of the film.
Jeanne's character in particular appears to represent feminism, and relates to a myriad of prominent women throughout history. Especially when considering her comparison with Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc).
Michelet's book La Sorcier which inspired Belladonna of Sadness arguably depicts the story of Joan of Arc, and portrays her resistance against feudalism and the Catholic Church. The similarities with Jeanne can be seen most in the final scenes of the film.
The visuals are reminiscent of watercolor paintings and heavily influenced by western art. It often hangs in limbo between realism and surrealism, and surely isn't considered typical. The quality is fair considering it was produced in the 70s. It has received a 4k restoration which greatly enhances the clarity and colors in the film.
The animation suffers greatly where the art shines. Many of the scenes are depicted by panning across still paintings rather than being animated. This could be seen as a matter of style or budget, but it definitely could've benefited from consistency. Regardless, I think the animation can be forgiven with the era it was depicted.
The music is as funky as the era it came from and varies greatly from the Rock Opera to Psychedelic genre and beyond. It's almost always fitting, and creates indescribable emotions that go hand in hand with the images on screen.
A belladonna is a highly toxic flower, which also stands for 'beautiful woman.' In the past, witches were believed to use a mixture of belladonna and other plants in flying ointment, which they applied to help them fly to gatherings with other witches. A theory for the inclusion of belladonna in flying ointments concerns the dream-like waking state it produces.
Much of the scenes in the film are depicted as if the viewer was under the influence of the belladonna flower. Similar to the flower, the film itself can also be interpreted from many different perspectives.
In my eyes Belladonna of Sadness holds significant implications regarding sexuality, feminism, religion, and history. It presents a thought provoking succession of metaphorical imagery far ahead of its time, and I won't ever forget the impact it had on me.