Belladonna of Sadness Blu-ray Review

Erotic Japanese Animation From the 1970s Intended As Serious Art

Previously unavailable on home video in America, Belladonna of Sadness is an experimental piece of Japanese animation from the Seventies. The last film in the adult-themed Animerama trilogy produced by the godfather of Japanese anime & manga, Osamu Tezuka, it was directed by his long time collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto (Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion). The movie unfolds as a series of spectacular watercolor paintings that bleed and twist together in a sexually violent narrative. This is provocative material laced with eroticism and a harrowing reflection on the repression of women in society.

Japanese cinema saw a flowering of surreal expression and transgressive art in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Belladonna of Sadness is based on an obscure French novel from 1862 by Jules Michelet, La Sorcière (Satanism and Witchcraft). The proto-feminist novel’s characters and themes morph into the visually stunning animation seen in the film. Told in a metaphorical manner, the movie intelligently adapts its source material with a nod to adult fables.

This is not traditional cel animation as seen in the Disney films. It is more a series of still images that drip with rich watercolors and careful line drawings. Belladonna of Sadness is a uniquely visual narrative. The movie comfortably belongs on a short list with Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet and Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards for its psychedelic, hallucinatory imagery. The dream-like fable it tells is filled with graphic material made strictly for adults.

An innocent young French woman in the Eighteenth Century, Jeanne (voiced by Aiko Nagayama) is violently raped by the local lord on her wedding night. To take revenge and help out her husband, Jeanne makes a pact with the Devil himself (voiced by Tatsuya Nakadai from Akira Kurosawa’s Ran). The Devil appears as a phallic sprite that gradually corrupts her, eventually causing her ruination. It is an idiosyncratic choice for a Japanese audience, possibly why the movie met with little success in its native homeland. The Japanese movie almost feels more at home in the Western tradition with its intricate themes and careful metaphors aimed at the French feudal class structure.

Belladonna of Sadness is challenging fare with its graphic and haunting sexual violence.


The great paradox of Belladonna of Sadness is that it lies uneasily between exploitation and serious artistic statement. The Japanese have never seen animation as a childish medium strictly intended for kids. Belladonna of Sadness is challenging fare with its graphic and haunting sexual violence. Framed under the class warfare seen before the French Revolution, there is a resigned sadness to Jeanne’s struggle. She is a tragic character buffeted by forces beyond her control. Belladonna of Sadness leaves the interpretation of her devil up to the viewer. It’s not a stretch viewing him as a representation of patriarchal society.

The movie is taken more seriously with a fantastic score from avant garde jazz composer Masahiko Satoh. Having studied abroad in America, Satoh brings an accessible pop sound to the soundtrack, adding a significant element of artistry. Singer Mayumi Tachibana gives a memorably haunting vocal performance for the title theme track. That is important in an animated feature with a loosely connected narrative, told more in art than dialogue.

The Seventies saw an explosion of experimental cinema all across the world and Belladonna of Sadness is a perfect example. The lost animation masterpiece was designed as a serious work of cinema, crafted around intricately designed imagery meant to shock and excite adult audiences. The Japanese-language film looks and sounds better than ever in this newly restored edition. For those people that like exploring cinema outside the mainstream, Belladonna of Sadness is a recommended destination for art-house lovers.

Belladonna of Sadness Blu-ray screen shot 3

Video

The film has been newly restored by Cinelicious Pics using the original 35mm camera negative and sound elements, including eight minutes of surreal and explicit footage cut from the negative. That includes a brand-new film scan done at 4K resolution from elements in perfect condition. The new distributor to Blu-ray uses a technically accurate transfer supervised by Paul Korver, handled with care and wisdom. Given the fine work shown here, I am already anticipating their next Blu-ray release.

The main feature runs 87 minutes on a BD-50. Belladonna of Sadness is encoded in fully transparent AVC compression averaging 29.66 Mbps. It is presented at 1080P resolution in its expected 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

The negative is in immaculate condition with virtually no visible deterioration. Much of it is told in visual metaphors, an early precursor to animation seen in videos for Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The watercolors and inks are finely rendered. Some expecting the vibrant colors of more recent theatrical animation are likely to be disappointed. This animation does not have the vividly saturated palette of a Pixar film.

I’m assigning a perfect video score to Belladonna of Sadness primarily for its artistic achievement, which is distinctive and unique even for independent animation. In pure videophile terms, the still images don’t pop with the clarity and definition matching the absolute best, vintage cel animation. This lavish restoration gives the beautiful animation a perfect presentation.

Audio

The beautiful and melodic score is a critical component in this film. It is heard in perfect fidelity in the two included soundtracks. For some reason, a stereo 2.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is left hidden on the main menu. The primary option is a respectable mono mix in 1.0 DTS-HD MA quality.

Dialogue offers fairly standard, if thin, sound quality. The mastering is nicely dynamic with enough headroom for the jazzy score. The 1.0 DTS-HD MA option sounds slightly better as the stereo mix has an artificial character likely a byproduct of its mixing.

Optional English subtitles display in a white font.

Extras

Belladonna of Sadness arrives in a clear Blu-ray case with a beautifully illustrated 16-page collector’s booklet. It includes Dennis Bartok’s fine essay “Belladonna of Sadness: Lost & Found” on the film and its background. All the included interviews are done in Japanese and feature English subtitles. They all have been made fairly recently and work well with genuine insight behind the scenes.

Interview with Director Eiichi Yamamoto (23:20 in HD) – Yamamoto goes in depth about the financial realities of making this film and his working association with Osamu Tezuka.

Interview with Art Director Kuni Fukai (16:51 in HD) – Fukai talks at length about his working process and how he became an artist.

Interview with Composer Masahiko Satoh (27:20 in HD) – The composer actually plays a portion of his score and discusses his background in music. He also discusses the movie’s reception in Japan.

Red Band Trailer (2:35 in HD)

Green Band Trailer (1:31 in HD)

Original 1973 Trailer (2:58 in HD)

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process. Patreon supporters were able to access these screens early, view them as .pngs, and gain access to exclusives.