Reconsidering Belladonna of Sadness: Still powerful after almost 50 years

By: Carmen Antreasian February 11, 20220 Comments
Close-up of Jeanne with figures of devils and couples sexually entwined in her hair

Content warning: sexual violence, patriarchal structural violence, heteronormativity; NSFW images (nudity, sexual acts)

Spoilers for Belladonna of Sadness

A cult film originally released in 1973, Belladonna of Sadness can be read as a second-wave feminist work. However, in order to understand the film as feminist, it is important to emphasize that the film’s plot is based on Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière (translated as Satanism and Witchcraft or The Witch of the Middle Ages in English), originally published in 1862. In his book Michelet discusses his conception of the Witch’s way of life and the persecution the Witch faced by feudal Christian societies in the Middle Ages. Michelet defends the Witch in his book as a champion of love and healing and defends witchcraft as a prelude to science: “…we shall mark the beginning of the professional man as juggler, astrologer, or prophet, necromancer, priest, physician. But at first the woman is everything”. Belladonna of Sadness follows Michelet’s same view, combining this 19th century vision of the liberated witch with second-wave feminist ideology to create a flawed but fascinating work that invites revisiting even all these years later. 

Jeanne covering her face with her hair, her dress in tatters

To those unfamiliar with the film, Belladonna of Sadness is the story of Jeanne and the persecution she faces as a woman in a feudal society. The story begins when newlywed Jeanne is gang-raped by the local baron and his attendants under the justification of “prima nocta”. When her husband falls ill, Jeanne becomes desperate and a clitoral/phallic demon appears to her and gives Jeanne wealth and influence as the village money-lender. She holds this role and this power until she is stripped of it–literally–and chased out of town. She ultimately “sells her soul to the devil”, which is the grown version of the initial phallic creature, and becomes a witch who lives apart from the village. Plague breaks out in the feudal society, and the villagers eventually join Jeanne, who builds a society that celebrates herbal medication and sexuality. Having lost power over the villagers, the baron offers her power as a means to control her knowledge; when she refuses to tell him, she is burnt at the stake.

This is a film written and directed by men (Yamamoto Eiichi and Fukuda Yoshiyuki) and is considered a Japanese “pink film”’ as it is includes graphic depictions of sex and nudity. Belladonna of Sadness uses its “pink film” attributes in order to demonstrate the plight of the main character Jeanne as an example of Michelet’s Witch. Jeanne’s sexuality is the focal point of her journey and the catalyst for the social changes that occur throughout the story.

Created during the Japanese feminist movement of the early 1970s, Belladonna of Sadness is a second-wave feminist film, and it’s impossible to talk about Japan’s women’s liberation without discussing the ideas of Tanaka Mitsu, arguably its most prominent leader. Tanaka fought against the popular notion of the woman as either a housewife or an object for male sexual pleasure. Instead, she advocated for the woman to be seen as an individual with agency over her own sexuality and shared her own life experiences with sexual assault, including rape and harassment, to inspire other women to support women’s liberation, a.k.a. uuman libu

Close up of Jean's weeping face with a collage of colors behind her

This seems to pair nicely with Jeanne: she’s initially (and presumably) destined to fulfill a wifely role in marrying her lover Jean but instead is forced into the role of sex object when brutally raped by the baron and his cronies, and gains agency as an individual through the awakening of her own sexuality. After this awakening she does not fall into the housewife/male-sex-object binary but gains power and instead assumes a leadership role in the village. However, the phallic nature of Jeanne’s sexual awakening complicates this viewpoint. To explore this, it’s crucial to look at Jeanne’s initial encounter with the little creature who awakens her sexuality before “it” becomes “him”– the devil/phallus character.

When she first meets the devil/phallus character, Jeanne is in a desperate position. Not only is she emotionally scarred from being raped, but she lives in poverty with her ill husband who, despite telling her they would move on from her assault, later attempted to strangle her. One night while her husband is asleep, a small clitoral-esque creature appears.   

The clitoral creature states that it is her. It does not deny being “the devil”, but it is born of her desire. Her sexual awakening has begun. The clitoral creature then tickles her all over her body, making her laugh, and she questions how this small thing could give her power. Then it “teaches” her how to make it grow by rubbing itself in her hand, which turns “it” into a phallic creature that gives her sexual pleasure as she lays next to her sleeping husband. This is Jeanne’s first experience with masturbation, initiated by a clitoral-to-phallic creature, a personification of her individual sexuality—“I am you”—and summoned by her “screaming soul”. The agency of the “soul” is another important aspect of 1970s Japanese feminism, as Tanaka stated, “I want to have a stronger soul with which I can burn myself out either in heartlessness or in tenderness. Yes, I want a stronger soul.” Tanaka’s soul calls out for strength as Jeanne’s does for power, both qualities that were specifically reserved for men.

Jeanne holding the small clitoral-shaped demon in her hand

Jeanne’s individual sexual agency is exactly the kind of liberation Japanese feminists of the early 1970s envisioned, and in the film, it sets in motion Jeanne’s success within  feudal society. Her sexual awakening was triggered not by the horrific rape she experienced beforehand but by her own, albeit guided, exploration of sexual pleasure without another person. However, it must be noted that this devil creature is gendered with a distinct male voice and phallic appearance.To discuss this, it’s helpful to bring in another element of the 1970s: the psychoanalytic female subject. This idea comes from Jacques Lacan’s theory of sexuation, conceived in 1972-1973. While Belladonna was in production as this theory was being published, it’s a useful way to boil down 1970s psychoanalysis to one analytical lens for the purpose of this essay.

Why use psychoanalysis and, of all psychoanalytic theorists, why Lacan, a man who once said that his brand of psychoanalysis wasn’t applicable to the Japanese? Both psychoanalysis and second-wave feminism were popular ways of thinking in the early 1970s that sometimes overlapped and often-times butted heads. Jeanne may be a feminist character, but she is also one created by men. Jeanne may be a character in a Japanese film, but she is also one based on a French man’s story of a witch in the European Middle Ages within a European social structure. And while Lacan might be thoroughly outdated in real life, his influential work still makes for a compelling tool of literary analysis. 

Sexuation, to be dangerously brief, is Lacan’s theory of how a subject becomes a desiring subject through his/her sexuality. This theory relies on a binary, and there are different roles for male and female subjects. The female subject in sexuation fits one of three roles, two of which are to cater to the male subject and one that seeks what the male subject seeks: the “phallus”, otherwise known as power. Jeanne is the latter of the three. The phallus manifests when her sexuality is awakened; the phallus gives her power; when she is destitute and chased from the village, she seeks the phallus; again, the phallus gives her power. Jeanne fits the mold almost too perfectly… but does she?

the clitoral demaon resting against Jeanne's neck, offering to give her power

If Jeanne were to truly fit Lacan’s mold as female-subject-who-seeks-the-phallus/power, then she would not be able to dismantle the patriarchal social structure once she becomes the leader of the village. Why? Because she would then be playing into a patriarchal structure herself, adhering to an identity constructed by men for a woman in power. When she first gains power and wealth in the feudal system, she continues to lead in accordance with it. She still pays and collects taxes—in fact, her husband becomes the tax collector—and she still meets with her superiors in the feudal system. Nothing systemic really changes except that she becomes the leader of the villagers and brings them wealth. 

Jeanne is exposed to the violence and greed of those men for which the system was created once they deem her a threat to their power, and so she is eventually chased out of the village and away from the system completely. This is the moment when she “sells her soul to the devil”. It is a desperate moment, as was the very first time the clitoral-phallic creature appeared to her. This time, though, the creature is entirely phallic, monstrously large and referred to as the devil, but there is one very important detail to remember: “I am you.” 

The devil creature extending a cape--Jeanne's silhouette can be seen inside

This phallic character, once a small creature on a spool of thread, is a manifestation of her sexuality. Yes, it is exceedingly heterosexual, and a product of male writers and animators, but Joanne still has agency to engage with the manifestation of sexual desire and independence she herself has cultivated. Albeit clearly depicted as masculine, the devil phallus does not adhere to the feudal social structure but rather an invitation to the possibility of something new, born of embodiment rather than socially constructed. 

Bodily knowledge, although depicted heteronormatively, is what creates Jeanne’s new society. The beautifully animated scene of Jeanne’s sexual experience with the devil is also full of Yonic imagery. When the devil appears to her, he parts the clouds by flying down in a circular motion, revealing a clear sky without a sun. Just before the devil lands, however, he shoots out of a shape in this clear blue sky: vaginally-shaped pink, red and purple oval. This vaginal space appears to stand in for the sun and allows the devil to manifest on the earth. This phallus originates from the vaginal.

a pink and purple climactic cloud that looks like a uterus

Once Jeanne and the devil’s intercourse climaxes, images of modern—okay, 1973-modern—entertainment, technology and everyday life flash before the viewer’s eyes, signifying that she made it happen. This is in accordance with Michelet’s message that it is the woman who was first to create and resonates with 1970s Japanese feminist Raicho Hiratsuka’s sentiment that “in the beginning woman was the sun”, evidence of the importance of the aforementioned Yonic imagery in the film. Jeanne’s embodied sexuality sparks the possibility for all that will be created, even that which is phallic.

Jeanne gets another chance at dismantling the feudal patriarchal social structure when the black death, better known as the Plague, destroys the village. One of the not-dead-yet villagers finds himself near her, and she cures him with what he refers to as “poison,” telling him “poison is medicine.” He goes back to tell the others, who spread rumors that she is a witch but run to join her because of her healing powers, sympathy toward others, and rejection of social hierarchies and sexual norms. On these foundations she builds her own society, one that is inclusive, even to those who have wronged her and come to her for help. She builds a society based on liberation, kindness, and open-mindedness. 

Jeanne crawling naked atop a man covered in black plague splotches. Subtitle: Poison is medicine. that is what cured you

She provides antidotes specifically related to female reproduction such as labor pain medication and birth control, access to which was a large part of the Japanese women’s liberation movement in the 1970s (and remains an issue there as it does abroad). People are free to have sex as often as they wish without worrying about the potential financial burden of having children. People are free to experiment sexually, shown in the orgy scene in Jeanne’s hair. Her new society is not a patriarchal one, but she also did not have to dismantle the previous patriarchal society to create her own. The Plague provides the conditions to build her feminist society separate from the existing feudal structure. Her society is not a rebellion or antithesis of the feudal structure but a revolutionary system of its own making.

Jeanne and her sexuality—from “selling her soul” to the devil/phallus, who is also a part of herself—demonstrate that a feminist society is possible, though its conception of what that might encompass is limited due in part to the restrictions of Michelet’s source material. The sexual symbolism in the villager’s activities are heterosexually binary, and the villagers all form man/woman pairs when they first engage with Jeanne’s society. The bodies of the villagers continue to be drawn as either clearly heteronormatively male or female as well.

Jeanne sitting naked in a yonic cave, surrounded by flowers

The major exception is the non-heteronormative sexuality depicted in Jeanne’s alternative society during the long orgy scene in Jeanne’s hair, where the villagers are all connected in sexual positions and occasionally break out to showcase various other non-hetero sexual scenarios.There are moments of bisexuality seen in the orgy and one flash of two men together, but anytime a person strays from being either cis male or female, they are merged with an animal and meant to be comical. This lack of tender, intimate queerness even under liberation becomes the biggest failing of the film’s vision.

Ultimately, however, Jeanne and the villagers are forced to go back to feudal society. Jeanne’s husband comes to her, telling her she will be forgiven by the lord if she returns. She isn’t fooled by the lord’s blatant lie, but she knows that if she doesn’t go back, the lord will send troops to capture and kill her. She is in a lose-lose situation. The patriarchal structure proves its all-powerful authority, and that her separatism is impossible without dismantling the oppressive structures she fled. When she goes back, the lord does, in fact, offer her land in exchange for her knowledge.

the baron and his court imploring Jeanne to explain the flower's usage to his scientists

He not only wants her power—the lord wants to indoctrinate her power into a patriarchal system, taking the feminine healer’s “witchcraft” and rebranding it as “science”. The lord desperately tries to get her to reveal her healing power by offering her more and more power in the feudal system, but Jeanne is not interested in being a part of his patriarchal hierarchy. She’s experienced the possibility of a feminist society and desires revolution over anything she could obtain in the existing structure.

During the film’s final moments, when Jeanne is burned at the stake, the faces of the women villagers watching her begin to change one by one to resemble her face, symbolizing the perpetuation of Jeanne’s influence. These villagers’ faces reflecting Jeanne’s face is a sign of Jeanne’s legacy. It is revolutionary in its admission that it’s possible to envision a society outside of the existing oppressive structure.

a crowd of women, all of whom have Jeanne's face

Watching the film in 2022 through an intersectional lens informed by evolving feminist and queer theories, Belladonna of Sadness may no longer seem progressive. The “girl power” message its male writers were trying to get across may be lost in its overwhelmingly graphic heterosexuality, and Michelet’s vision of The Witch may not resonate or hold the same power for contemporary viewers. 

The homogeneity of the womens’ faces at the end of the film demonstrate that the “girl power” Jeanne had put in motion is homogenous. It suggests that there is only one type of woman that can grasp and perpetuate Jeanne’s vision. Through a lens of queer and critical race theory, the womens’ faces merely play into existing power structures, as the faces are all the same and, most importantly, all white with feminine traits such as big eyes, dark eyelashes, full pink lips. A truly radical depiction of Jeanne’s society in these face changes to push against patriarchal power structures would include a wide array of faces.

Through hindsight it may not hold up today in some regards, but I firmly believe that it is still revolutionary in that it depicts the possibility of a society based in the power of sexual freedom, healing, and care, rather than one that merely reconfigures existing patriarchal structures. The society Jeanne creates outside the feudal land is radical. Her society is necessarily birthed of the female body; even the phallus cannot come into being without her sexuality. Belladonna of Sadness is a historically important film that deserves to be revisited and reconsidered. It helps us better understand current feminist thought by knowing where we’ve come from and, in analyzing its flaws as well as its more deeply embedded subversions, allows us to push current critical theory even further. 

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