Eiichi Yamamoto's 1973 animated feature film Belladonna Of Sadness, based on the book Satanism And Witchcraft written in 1862 by Jules Michelet is essentially a story of witchcraft, albeit a very unconventional one. When the movie begins, we meet a young woman named Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama). She is soon to be wed to her fiancé Jean (Katsutaka Ito) but on the evening before the couple are to take their vows, she is raped by the village Lord and his cohorts, a punishment due to the man for her fiancé's failure to pay the mandatory marriage fees. After the deed is done, she goes to Jean who asks her that they move past this together. Jeanne, however, sees violent visions of revenge. As the story progresses, the Lord raises taxes on the villagers even as famine sets in. Jean is hired to work as a tax collector but when he proves less than perfect in his new role, the Lord cuts off his hand. As the baron heads off to war, Jeanne takes a more powerful position in the small town after setting herself up as an usurer.
The story progresses as when the Lord returns only to find his own wife distraught over Jeanne's newfound popularity in the village. They accuse the young woman of witchcraft and eventually, not even Jean will have anything to do with her. Distraught, she goes (Tatsuya Nakadai) of which ties into the vision she saw that night of her rape. Jean and Jeanne might have been ‘smiled upon by God' when all of this started, but not anymore…
Anyone at all familiar with Michelet's book, or maybe more specifically the illustrations that have accompanied it in certain editions, will know that Belladonna Of Sadness is going to take us into some decidedly dark territory. Like the book, this animated feature ties female sexuality and occult practices together in some decidedly bizarre but artistically impressive and challenging ways. The movie relies more on trippy, psychedelic imagery than on traditional narrative devices but the plot isn't particularly complex or difficult to follow. The focus seems more on the transition that occurs, what pushes Jeanne to do what she does in the later part of the film and how both male and female characters take advantage of her in various ways. When she finally does make her unholy pact, it's hard to blame her. There's some interesting depth to the story made all the more poignant in certain scenes by the visuals and the movie works as both an arthouse style erotic horror film and as a dark coming of age story.
The voice work from the cast is well done. Everything feels ‘right' in this regard and Aiko Nagayama really does some impressive work here. On top of that, the great Tatsuya Nakadai is excellent as the devil and he goes a great job of using his distinctive voice to bring that character, obviously a catalyst of sorts in the story, to life. The voice work is balanced perfectly with the film's fantastic soundtrack. Layered with loads of fuzz and distortion at times and using an unorthodox but surprisingly effective psych-heavy style, Masahiko Satoh compositions for the film are worth the price of the disc alone.
It's the visuals, however, that really stick in your brain once the movie has finished. This is a visually intensive film. Some would and will make the argument that it's an exercise in style over substance, maybe there's some truth to that, but the water color style employed in the film does an excellent job of complementing the narrative. Characters move over wildly stylish looking still paintings with an eerie, otherworldly grace while macabre symbolism, much of which is taken from the Tarot, swirls about. It's a lot to take in at times, a fever dream of pictures set to music that mixes, at times, surprisingly graphic sexual imagery with manic energy. If metaphor and surrealism appeal to you, don't let this one pass you by.The Blu-ray:
Belladonna Of Sadness debuts on a 50GB Blu-ray disc in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.32.1 and it looks fantastic. Taken from a new 4k restoration of original film elements, this transfer leaves virtually no room for complaint. Color reproduction is excellent and detail would appear to be as strong as the original animation will allow and is frequently very impressive. The image is also remarkably clean, showing no print damage, dirt or debris outside of the rare small white speck now and again. The transfer also looks quite film-like. There's no obvious noise reduction nor is there any edge enhancement apparent on the picture. Grain is present but never distracting or overpowering. This shapes up very, very nicely, the movie looks great.Sound:
The disc includes Japanese language DTS-HD Mono and Stereo tracks with optional subtitles available in English only. The audio here is quite good. This isn't a particularly complex track but the dialogue is always crystal clear and balanced nicely against the score (which is absolutely awesome). The mono mix, for an older single channel track, sounds nice and full and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion to note. There's more depth than you'd probably expect and good range as well. The story track, obviously, spreads things out a bit more but plays things safe and doesn't remix things more than it needs to. Both tracks offer a great listening experience.Extras:
The main supplements for this release arrive in the form of three separate video interviews, the first of which is a twenty-four minute piece with director Eiichi Yamamoto. He speaks at length about his appreciation of manga has shaped his work as a filmmaker, how he got into directing movies, working on Belladonna Of Sadness and a few other film related projects, some of the censorship issues that Belladonna Of Sadness ran into and a fair bit more. The second interview features the film's art director, Kuni Fukai, who speaks for seventeen minutes about the visual style of the film, influences both good and bad that seeped into his work on this and other projects, and the important of color in Belladonna Of Sadness. The third interview is with composer Masahiko Satoh. Over twenty-seven minutes he discusses how he got into composing the score for the film, his background as a musician, how he got into music in the first place and more specifically what went into scoring this particular feature. All three are quite interesting and together they provide some very welcome background information on the film.
Rounding out the disc is the film's original theatrical trailer from 1973, red band and green band re-release trailers, menus and chapter selection. Included insert the keepcase along with the Blu-ray disc is an insert booklet containing an essay entitled Belladonna Of Sadness: Lost & Found by Daniel Bartok along with credits for the feature and for the disc itself.Final Thoughts:
Belladonna Of Sadness is, like a lot of great art, challenging at times but it is a beautifully made film ripe for rediscovery. Those looking for a more conventional anime feature might be put off by some of the film's stronger content but adventurous viewers should absolutely give this one a shot. Cinelicious Pictures has done a great job bringing the restored film to Blu-ray in fantastic shape with a solid array of supplemental material accompanying it. Highly recommended.