Loosely inspired by Jules Michelet’s Satanism and Witchcraft, a fictionalized history of medieval witchcraft in Europe, Eiichi Yamamoto’s cult anime Belladonna of Sadness strikes a perfect balance between midnight-movie enchantment and arthouse sophistication. The plot follows two recently married peasants, Jean and Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama and Katsuyuki Itô), as they deal with the aftermath of Jeanne’s rape by a local baron (Masaya Takahashi) and his henchman by right of prima nocta. Jeanne eventually makes a Faustian bargain with Satan (Tatsuya Nakadai), who appears to her in the guise of a playful demonic phallus, which initially gives her vast social power, but ultimately breeds tragic consequences for the couple.
For all its wonderfully gonzo WTF moments, as when the diminutive, phallic Satan slowly grows in stature as Jeanne strokes him, there’s also an underlying stately melancholy to the proceedings. The sadistic punishment of Jeanne’s body is disturbingly ambivalent, both sensual and sinister, as she welcomes and resists her repeated onslaughts in equal measure. This dualism reflects the film’s nuanced view of medieval witchcraft as both a harbinger of feminism and an example of sexual decadence, an act of social transgression that challenged medieval moral and power structures by deliberately embracing what society viewed as an illicit and evil form of behavior.
The film’s visuals consist mainly of panning shots of sumptuously painted tableaus, frequently enlivened by startling movements (both sudden and fluid) in unexpected areas of the mise-en-scène. The animation is decadently expressionistic, inspired by works from the last millennium of European art, particularly the sinuous lines and dark eroticism of Aubrey Beardsley, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele. The scenes depicting war and plague exude a particularly hallucinatory quality; we see the plague literally eating away at the foundations of medieval society, as cathedrals and other monuments of feudal power dissolve into formless wisps of smoke and specters.
Belladonna of Sadness nevertheless reflects a uniquely Japanese id, as evidenced by such touches as Jeanne and Satan’s lovemaking session, where her hair flows in the ether like the tentacles of an octopus in the ocean. Such elements, along with Masahiko Satoh’s incredible psychedelic soundtrack, connects Jeanne’s liberation struggle against the authorities of medieval Europe with Japan’s contemporary political and social unrest. The visual excesses reinforce the film’s underlying attack on the repressive banality of conventional political rule. Jeanne’s extravagant sexuality has no labor value in a medieval society that relies on the economic exploitation of the peasant masses; it thus functions as a criticism of the oppressive materialism of a world supposedly dedicated to spiritual values. Embracing evil is her only way to achieve sovereignty in a world where God has become a tool of repression.
Jeanne rebels against God as the spiritual embodiment of the patriarchal state that violated her in the form of the baron and his court. This follows Michelet’s reading of witches’ covens as an early example of popular rebellion against the authoritarian state that would culminate in the French Revolution. Jeanne is a forerunner of the equally liberated Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix’s topless embodiment of the women (in Michelet’s conception) who led the populist revolutions that shook Europe throughout the 19th century. And yet, it’s a very phallic Satan that endows Jeanne with her growing social and political agency during her rise and eventual fall from the pinnacles of power. If this attempt to link medieval witchcraft with the modern women’s liberation movement ultimately comes off as a bit perfunctory and confused, the effort is nevertheless emblematic of the film’s largely successful effort to deliver a beautifully trippy mindfuck with some philosophical depth.