Joan of Arc tragedy-triumph meets 1970s Japanese art house transgression in Belladonna of Sadness (Kanashimi no Belladonna), a long-forgotten X-rated psychedelic animation gem about one woman’s violation, persecution, and sexual awakening produced over four decades ago by the makers of Astro Boy.
The third entry in the Animerama trilogy of racy adult animated features was produced in the late ’70s by the company founded by Osamu Tezuka, the grandfather of anime. But the series bombed, and Tezuka’s studio Mushi Productions went under shortly thereafter. Belladonna of Sadness never even made it across the Pacific.
Ever since then, Belladonna’s lived on only in the rarefied hearts, minds, and collections of obscure art fiends and animation hounds. Prized for its dreamlike watercolors and funkadelic score, Belladonna earned cult status for its striking visuals, brutal violence, and explicit sexuality, folded into a boldly controversial feminist narrative.
Now Belladonna of Sadness has been brought to vivid new life by a group of L.A.-based cineastes who have given the 1973 gem a 4K restoration and added eight minutes of explicit footage back in. After its unveiling late last week at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, Belladonna will be released stateside for the first time next year.
The stunning rediscovery, adapted by anime veteran Eiichi Yamamoto more than 40 years ago from Jules Michelet’s 19th-century French proto-feminist text La Sorciere, tells the tragic tale of a blissfully happy peasant bride in feudal France.
The young woman’s passion stirs innocently at first as she enjoys newly wedded bliss with her husband, Jean. But when the powerful local Lord invokes his right of primae noctis and viciously rapes Belladonna on her wedding night, an escalating cycle of persecution and abuse is set in motion that leads her straight into the arms of the devil.
Belladonna’s affair with Satan—appearing first as a flirty phallic imp, he grows in size and intensity proportionate to his mounting desire to possess her—gets her ostracized by her peers, but also leads to a financial and sexual liberation that begins spreading to her fellow commoners, much to the dismay of the morally bankrupt religious-political order. Brutal, beautiful, and produced at the height of the sexual revolution, Belladonna pays tribute to so-called witches of medieval times as the forebears of modern feminist revolutionaries.
Lovers of provocative cinema are more than ready now to embrace Belladonna’s witchy eroticism. Art and fashion fiends should also gravitate to its distinct aesthetic. “It’s an artistically stunning movie,” said Cinelicious’ Paul Korver, whose team spent several hundreds of hours of work restoring the film once an elusive original 35mm camera negative was located.
Without further ado, watch the psychedelic orgy of sexual liberation explode in a Daily Beast exclusive clip: