This psychedelic, violent and sexually-charged cult classic is unlike any other in early Japanese anime, about a woman making a pact with the devil in an act of desperation.
Cast: Aiko Nagayama, Tatsuya Nakadai, Katsuyuki Ito
Plot: An innocent young woman is violently raped by the local lord on her wedding night. To take revenge, she makes a pact with the Devil himself who appears as an erotic sprite and transforms her into a black-robed vision of madness and desire.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlinale)
Subject Matter: Mature/Dark – Revenge, Sexuality, Devil Worship
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex/Experimental
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Japanese anime can be mature, sophisticated films, representing both the light and dark sides of humanity. In Belladonna of Sadness, we encounter the darkest recesses of the mind as cult director Eiichi Yamamoto (famous for Kimba, the White Lion (1966) which Disney’s The Lion King (1994) had been accused of plagiarising from) gives us what could be one of the genre’s earliest cult classics.
As an animation, it is as wildly creative as any. Employing a range of aesthetical choices on a 2D animated plane, we witness—or rather are bombarded with—exaggerated, surreal visuals that are at times just abstract shapes, colours and patterns.
It’s a psychedelic affair matched with the kind of experimental, trippy style of music that might leave you in a drug-induced daze. And it’s probably for the better as the story and themes unfold with such chronic bleakness that one might sometimes afford a laugh or two at the absurdity on display just to temporarily neutralise the mood.
“Are you the devil?”
There are songs abound as they speak of a woman’s tragic plight: Jeanne, as she is called, is brutally raped on her wedding night by a feudal lord. With her dignity and a rosy future lost, she makes a pact with the devil to save herself and exact vengeance, leading to even direr consequences.
Belladonna’s a violent anime, but what is most striking is how sexually-charged it is. In possibly the most outrageous sequence in Yamamoto’s work, we see an orgy-like scenario that seems to last forever as an endless string of humans, possessed by evil forces, pleasure each other orally. It’s like a fantastical vision of The Human Centipede but sexualised rather than scatologicalised. A must-watch for fans of adult anime.