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Review: Newly Restored ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ Is 1973’s Best and Most Disturbing Animated Feminist Porn

Review: Newly Restored 'Belladonna of Sadness' Is 1973's Best and Most Disturbing Animated Feminist Porn


In 1973, the Japanese equivalent of Walt Disney decided to adapt a 19th century book about the feminist history of witchcraft into an animated prog-rock musical about a medieval peasant girl who gets gang-raped on her wedding night and then turns to Satan for help with her revenge. This is really a thing that happened. Strange even by the impossibly high standards of Japanese cinema, the wild and exhausting “Belladonna of Sadness” was conceived by Osamu Tezuka — the godfather of manga — as the third and final chapter of Mushi Productions’ Animerama trilogy (a series of explicitly adult animated films that also included erotic riffs on “Cleopatra” and “A Thousand and One Nights”). 

Tezuka would drop out of the project during its primordial stages, leaving collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto alone at the wheel. The result is a sinister fairytale that feels like a psychedelic cartoon remake of the rape scene from “Rosemary’s Baby,” stretched (thin) to 85 minutes and filled with enough vaginal imagery to make Georgia O’Keeffe blush. All but buried for the last 40 years, the film has now been restored by Cinelicious Pictures, who have commissioned a 4K restoration from the original 35mm negative.

READ MORE: Watch: Long-Lost ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ Gets a Psychedelic NSFW Trailer

Faithfully teased from the pages of Jules Michelet’s 1862 novel, “La Sorcière,” and inspired by the same fetish for medievalism that gripped Jacques Demy and Pier Paolo Pasolini around the same time, “Belladonna of Sadness” opens with a very cheeky “Once upon a time.From there, the narrator launches into a frighteningly catchy psychedelic jam whose lyrics tell about a beautiful young woman named Jeanne who has just married the love of her life, a simple peasant named Jean. It’s the only memorable tune in a movie where the music will eventually make you wish that acid had never been invented, but it’s a doozy. “How wonderful,” the narrator smiles with a demonic tone. But things, as that disembodied voice already knows, will not stay wonderful for long. Jeanne and Jean must report to the demonic local baron on their wedding night so that he can deflower the bride as payment of the marriage tax. Jean offers the inhuman magistrate a cow in exchange for leaving his new bride untouched, but that’s not going to cut it.

And then, in the first of the film’s many indelibly surreal images of psychosexual trauma, Jeanne’s rape is symbolized by the sight of her naked body being cleaved in two down the middle like a butchered animal carcass, blood flying out of wound in the form of bats that flap off into oblivion. Few movies have ever so viscerally depicted the psychic toll of sexual trauma, the crime’s power to tear a person apart from themselves. The scene will haunt the rest of the film, poisoning even the most gratuitous moments of cartoon nudity to come.

Afterwards, Jeanne returns to her husband, who tells her that they’re going to draw a line in the sand and begin again. “Our life starts from this moment,” he says. If only it were so easy. Only a few minutes pass before Jeanne is visited by an (extremely phallic) manifestation of the devil, who stokes her nascent thirst to reassert her power and seek revenge on the men who took it from her. She’s reluctant, but the pint-sized satan — a symbol of her hatred — rubs itself in her Jeanne’s hand and tells her that he can grow as big as she wants. Then, naturally, the imp slips into the girl’s underwear and brings her to orgasm. Jeanne’s fortunes begin to improve shortly thereafter, but yadda yadda yadda she’s accused of being a witch, rejected by her husband and forced to double down on her pact with Lucifer (eventually voiced by legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai).

Made on the cheap, “Belladonna of Sadness” is largely comprised of static images set to music; only its most crucial (and most devious) moments are granted any moment. That overwhelming sense of stillness only grows increasingly disquieting as the film continues —  the more explicit the visuals become, the less arousing they feel. While the Animerama trilogy intended to capitalize on the rash of pink films that were titillating the live-action world at the time, “Belladonna of Sadness” consistently punishes viewers who planned to watch it with a hand down their pants, snatching horror from the jaws of lasciviousness. Don’t get too turned on by that supple drawing of a naked young woman, because a school of fish is about to erupt from her vagina. “Salò” might be the only other movie where so much sexualized nudity is offset by so little pleasure.

Smarter than it is salacious, the film’s narrative complements its Eurocentric art style, further distancing “Belladonna of Sadness” from the world of hentai and locating it instead in a Western history where women are positioned as angels of liberty, witchcraft their way of rebelling against institutional misogyny. History has a habit of prizing women for their sexuality one minute and punishing them for it the next, and “Belladonna of Sadness” reflects that dynamic down to its core. This is a story about men who are in the thrall of Jeanne’s beauty, and then enraged by their inability to control it. The movie operates in much the same fashion, ogling her soft curves and then flipping the pencil upside down and smudging them into a blur of unimaginable horror. This is a film made by horny men who were struggling not to drool on their drawings, but also men who were cognizant of the evils their gaze had visited upon female bodies across time.  

READ MORE: Cinelicious Pics Restoring ‘Belladona of Sadness’ For U.S. Release

“Belladonna of Sadness” could certainly have made the same points in half the time — the unceasing wail of trippy imagery begins to blur into nonsense, no matter how clever some of it may be — and the wild leaps the film makes in its final moments suggest that Yamamoto was too hamstrung by pervy ticket-buyers to really make the unbridled feminist manifesto he had in mind. Still, there’s an undeniable genius at work here, strong enough to survive the psychedelic sleaze that’s been baked into every frame. 

Grade: B+

“Belladonna of Sadness” opens in theaters on Friday.

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