‘Belladonna of Sadness’
Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Voices of: Aiko Nagayama, Tatsuya Nakadai
5 (out of 5) Globes
You can never un-see “Belladonna of Sadness,” an animated Japanese sextacular dug up from 1973 to traumatize today’s adventurous viewers. Perhaps you won’t mind never un-seeing it. Infinitely crazier than any breathless description could manage, it’s a deep dive into one woman’s mental Gotterdammerung, depicted as a fluid, ever-changing nightmare of ceaseless, unprintable oddities — like “Yellow Submarine” gone blue (or pink, to borrow the term for Japan’s brand of naughty films), and sometimes with even better music.
If that makes it sound like it’s for horndogs only, then be warned: It’s more progressive than retrograde (though arguably that, too). Inspired by tales of witchcraft in the Middle Ages from the 19th century French historian Jules Michelet, “Belladonna” begins cruelly: Jean and Jeanne are pretty people in love. “May they live happily ever after,” the narrator crows, before adding, ominously, “But this is just the beginning of the story.” No kidding. Their village lord orders Jeanne gang raped. Later he and his cronies accuse her of being a witch. Meanwhile Jean, unable to look on his tarnished beloved, turns his back on her.
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Or maybe it’s all a horrible dream. Director Eiichi Yamamoto and his heroic editors treat Jeanne’s psychological descent to an unfailing, epic battering ram of terrible sights, with enough demented creativity to inspire 1,000 animated masterworks. The style changes on a dime, from pans across still life, painterly drawings to noodly bits of kinetic business, usually against either woeful songs or fusion jazz sex music. When the Black Death arrives in town, that gets a five-minute horrorshow of melting buildings and rapidly decaying skeletons. It’s all a fever dream, where even the main events — Jeanne’s abuse, her submission to a shape-shifting demon, her trial for witchcraft — seem sprung from her mind. Barely 15 seconds go by without our hero getting naked or suffering some form of otherworldly, did-that-just-happen? abuse.
But it’s hard to imagine anyone treating “Belladonna” as mere spank bait. This is a deeply sympathetic, angry, even political work meant to delve into one woman’s unimaginable trauma. The images are perpetually outrageous and ridiculous, with an entire universe of crazy creatures and genitalia with wings and lascivious tendrils and orgies enacted inside everflowing strands of Jeanne’s hair. “Belladonna” never lets up, and like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the endless excesses are part of the point. It’s meant to abuse the viewer, to make them feel something of the bottomless agony of its tragic hero. All one can do is submit to it, to give in and acknowledge that it’s a singular whatzit that ruins you long after it finally ends.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge