Once upon a time, there was a couple named Jeanne (voiced by Aiko Nagayama) and Jean (Katsuyuki Itô) who lived in this French kingdom which was ruled over by the cruel Lord (Masaya Takahashi). They wished to consummate their love so asked him to marry them, but he was not so willing as they would have liked, not at all, and when they offered him their only cow to allow him to perform the ceremony, he demanded ten cows instead. On being told they had no chance of paying that amount, the Lord threw Jean out of his castle and raped Jeanne, then allowed the rest of the court to have their way with her as well as she screamed in outrage. On returning to their home, she felt utterly defeated - but something had taken note of her humiliation...
Belladonna of Sadness was the third in a trilogy conceived of by anime master Osamu Tezuka, after One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Cleopatra, but for whatever reason he ended up leaving the company before this was completed; the studio went bust shortly after, leaving this acclaimed in its day by those who did see it, but obscure until its revival in 2015 after a restoration, whereupon it was felt it finally got its due. Director Eiichi Yamamoto was, happily, still around to see this welcome, and it validated his work internationally, having previously only really been seen in his native Japan and parts of Europe. Nevertheless, it remained a mindbending experience, possibly more with the passage of time.
The nineteen-seventies stylings you might expect, but how far they went may take the unwary viewer aback, even those who counted themselves anime fans as Yamamoto pushed the boundaries of psychedelic sex as far as he could. If you thought you were aware of what anime commonly looked like, then you would not be prepared for the half-animated, half-static approach here which did not feature the traditional giant robots or plucky schoolgirls, but a historical setting and a tale of degradation that grew in the telling to one of triumph even as the protagonist's enemies seemed to finish her off. It was a film that stood up for the underdog, yet was not afraid to wallow in her suffering as if that made it all the more empowering.
Not something many Western movies would take on board, and even in Japan it was out there, the initial violation depicted as an almost literal tearing apart of the virginal Jeanne in imagery that was determined not to be erotic. That said, later on when it was determined to be just that, it may not have had the desired effect since Yamamoto employed much the same techniques of stylisation to the point that you may not be sure what you were watching, swooping montages and pans over writhing bodies as later on Jeanne liberates the entire village in an orgy. But how did she manage to do this when at the beginning of the movie she was a shell of a woman after her ordeal? The answer was that her terrible experiences have left her open to attraction from a tiny, phallic entity who turns out to be Satan himself.
Well, obviously, and in a sequence that strained credibility, the little Devil brings Jeanne to orgasm right after her multiple assaults, which was meant to give her back her self-respect and the ownership of her own body, but from some angles looked like she was being further exploited. Satan has a proposition for her: he will give her all the power she needs to get vengeance on the Lord (and his Lady), if she gives him her soul. Naturally, still being a devout Christian, she balks at this, but offers her flesh as a compromise, thus giving way to all those sexually surreal scenes that represent her taking back control, but doing so frequently naked, leading you to wonder who had the power in this relationship, the character or the director. Scored to a selection of folky tunes and psychedelic pop from Masahiko Satô, there was nothing really like Belladonna of Sadness to compare it to, both utterly of its time and not representative, investigating sexual potential with a wild and woolly disregard for logic, but an embrace of the weird. While inventive, it did become a bit of a grind well before the end, and the ultimate link to the French Revolution may be a step too far for most.