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Featured Blu-ray Review: Belladonna of Sadness

July 16th, 2016

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Belladonna of Sadness

Belladonna of Sadness is a bit of an odd film. It is a Japanese movie based on a French book written in the 1800s and that is reportedly based on real-life witches. The film failed to find an audience during its original release, causing the studio to go bankrupt, but since then, it has developed a cult following and earned plenty of critical praise. Is it worth checking out? Is it too strange for audiences? Or is it an undiscovered gem?

The Movie

The film begins on the wedding day of Jeanne and Jean. After they exchange vows, the pair heads to the local baron to give an offering as thanks. They have sold their only cow and give the money to the Baron, but the Baron doesn’t think that’s enough. He demands the price of ten cows. Jean protests saying he could never pay that price, so the Baron’s Wife comes up with another way to pay: The Baron will have his way with Jeanne and then so will all of the other members of the court.

Jeanne and Jean try to restart their lives after this tragedy, but Jean can’t look at his wife the same way. One night, after Jean has worked himself to exhaustion, Jeanne is visited by a tiny spirit who offers her power in exchange for her soul. At first, she’s not interested, but when the spirit tells her Jean will get sick and die during the winter from working too hard, she agrees. The spirit helps her spin thread, which Jeanne sells for a high price. As a result, Jean is the only one in the village who can pay all of his taxes and as a reward, the Baron makes him the new tax collector. However, this comes at a price, as immediately there are rumors that Jeanne is consorting with the devil and that’s how she was able to to make so much money.

The couple suffer another setback and the spirit again visits Jeanne, but it has grown bigger and is more powerful, and demands more from Jeanne.

Before I get to my opinion of the movie, there is a scene here about the Bubonic Plague. During the scene, there are lots of flashing lights and as I was watching, I thought this film needed a seizure warning. Be warned.

Belladonna of Sadness is an unusual movie and it very likely won’t appeal to most moviegoers for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s barely animated. It more like a motion comic than an animated film. A lot of the time, we only see watercolor backgrounds as the camera pans across them. Sometimes there are smaller elements that are animated, but even at the most animated, it does feel limited. That said, I’m willing to completely accept this style. Secondly, it is hard to talk about this movie without at least once using the phrase “Acid Trip” and this style will likely turn off as many people as it intrigues. (There is even a part of the movie where it seems to be intentionally mimicking Yellow Submarine.) Finally, this is an animated movie that is for adults only. I didn’t linger on it in the plot summary, but the scene where Jeanne is raped is brutal; it’s stylized, but brutal. She is also victimized repeatedly in the movie and even when she is empowered, she is sexualized, which makes it feel like we are supposed to be leering at her during these earlier scenes. The movie crosses into exploitation too often.

That said, there are also reasons to watch this movie. First of all, it’s gorgeous looking. While most animated films are a lot more detailed, the watercolor paintings in Belladonna of Sadness simply look gorgeous. I would watch some of the artful moments of the movie even without the plot. Additionally, Jeanne is a very compelling character and you do sympathize with her and do want her to rise above the situations the writers have put her in. Finally, there’s a lot of excellent music in this movie. I might pick up the soundtrack.

I think the positives outweigh the negatives, but many others will find it too brutal or won’t be able to get past the art style.

The Extras

The extras include three interviews with the director, art director, and the composer. The total running time is over an hour. There is also a 16-page pamphlet with an essay from Dennis Bartok.

An important note, the movie is Japanese and there is no English-language audio track. There’s just the original Japanese with English subtitles. Also, the film was shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, which is odd, even for 1973.

The Verdict

Belladonna of Sadness is a surreal experience, but I’m glad I got a chance to watch it. I suspect it will stick in my mind for a long, long time. The Blu-ray isn’t loaded with extras, but there’s enough here to be worth picking up over just renting.

Filed under: Video Review, Kanashimi no Belladonna, Aiko Nagayama, Eiichi Yamamoto, Kuni Fukai, Masahiko Satoh