For Reel

Belladonna of Sadness (1973)
April 29, 2017, 7:05 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
3.5 Stars
Belladonna of SadnessAt the time of its release in 1973, Belladonna of Sadness was such a financial disaster that it bankrupted the pioneering Japanese animation studio that released it. Now, with its reissue over four decades later, the film remains… well, equally inaccessible. At once a psychedelic, orgiastic sexploitation film in which genitalia morphs into animal forms and a deeply disturbing rape-revenge story, Belladonna of Sadness is loosely modeled on Jules Michelet’s 1862 study of medieval witchcraft. Shortly into the film, a peasant woman is brutally raped by a king and his henchman. The act is as disturbingly rendered as has been put to film, and expressionistically honors the unthinkable violence of the act—in the film, the perpetrators are little seen, but rather the victim is depicted as being torn in half in pulsating rips. After the brutal act is committed, the woman is visited by a phallic devil that becomes her abuser and mentor, and before long her powers create a plague in which images of decaying bodies and obscene sexual acts coexist. These later scenes, which would make the LSD-addled flora of Pink Floyd: The Wall blush, are the film’s weakest. If they have a hypnotic quality, they largely exist by the merits of their surface-level pleasures, harmonizing pleasure and pain in increasingly absurd images. But the first half, upsetting as it is to watch, is genuinely moving, and the way that the film conceives sexual pleasure as a means of thwarting oppression and sexual violence makes it a radical, under-seen feminist film of the period. Director Eiichi Yamamoto’s intentions are occasionally questionable—Satan’s seduction of the protagonist is eroticized to the point where the invasiveness becomes kinky—but the way he depicts open female sexuality as a literal demonic force plays as sharply satirical, turning erotic art into something that is decidedly anti-authoritarian in nature.

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