Starring: Aiko Nagayama, Katsuyuki Itô, Tatsuya Nakadai
Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Running Time: 86 mins
Belladonna Of Sadness is a Japanese film about a woman who, after being raped by the evil feudal lord that reigns over her village, makes a pact with the devil that gives her magic powers, allowing her to take revenge.
There is a very fine line between experimental, shocking and explicit art and what is effectively exploitation cinema, but it’s a line that the mesmerising Belladonna Of Sadness walks very well. While it’s certainly not recommended viewing for many, it’s a film with astonishing visual prowess, furthered by a devastating yet deeply enthralling story that grabs you right from the beginning, albeit not quite all the way to the end.
There’s nowhere else to star with this film than the animation, and it’s without a doubt what makes Belladonna Of Sadness such a spellbinding watch. Given my total lack of knowledge or understanding of pre-Miyazaki anime in Japan, I was drawn to see what the genre was like before it achieved worldwide popularity, and although this film certainly isn’t representative of the genre as a whole during the period, it offers a fascinating and visually stunning window into a different world of anime to what many of us know.
In effect, this film’s animation style can be likened to a flipbook, rather than appearing as a typical animated movie, its appearance looks distinctly like flicking through a scrapbook of sketches, while at times the frame sits still on one solitary drawing, and at others, we pan across a long strip of sketches that give the impression of some sort of tapestry.
That animation style means that Belladonna Of Sadness isn’t quite as cinematic a piece as you may be used to, however thanks to the genuinely beautiful drawings, and the fact that its rougher, more abstract visual nature fits in well with both the film’s medieval time setting and psychedelic vibe, it’s a unique and striking element throughout, with such commanding power that it’s really rather difficult to take your eyes off the screen.
And that feat is made all the more impressive given a lot of the film’s extremely explicit content. While nothing over-the-line is ever shown, the film effectively borders on being a piece of pornography, with a number of aggressive and violent sequences that are often complemented with bizarre erotic imagery throughout.
That’s why you should take care when deciding whether to watch this film, simply because of the explicit nature of much of its content, however while there are times when it all does go a little too far, and the often lurid vibe doesn’t quite bring all that much to proceedings, it is something that does add to the film’s story and atmosphere to a significant degree.
Because, while the visuals make for an achingly beautiful piece of animation, the story is both a devastating and deeply disturbing one. Beyond the explicit nature of many sequences, there’s a dark and brutal core to Belladonna Of Sadness, as we see an innocent young woman’s life entirely ruined, leading her down a path of darkness that’s often too much to even bear.
With that said, the film’s intentions are actually a lot more positive than you may think at first glance, and while it certainly crafts an enormously heavy-going and often depressing dramatic atmosphere at times, if you stick with the story to the end, you’ll understand some of its more empowering and positive central themes, with its take on feminism proving one of the most striking and intriguing I’ve seen in a very long time.
Of course, as an experimental film, there are always periods of abstract drama or psychedelic visuals that don’t play into narrative development as is often expected in more orthodox films. At first, it doesn’t prove too problematic, given the mesmerising nature of the film as a whole, however there are periods through the second half that do go a little bit too far with the experimentation.
Its bold and creative ambitions are admirable throughout, but when it comes to balancing art and narrative as well as the first half of the film does, Belladonna Of Sadness does unfortunately go astray towards its finale.
Overall, I was really rather taken aback by Belladonna Of Sadness. A visually arresting piece of animation that grabs you like few others, and despite its unorthodox animation style and experimental nature, its devastating yet deep story proves enthralling viewing throughout. Furthermore, its explicit nature is certainly notable, and while it does occasionally go a little too far in this regard, it surprisingly proves another layer of depth to the unfolding story, all of which is why I’m giving this film a 7.6.