The gist of Eiichi Yamamoto’s 1973 animated tale Belladonna of Sadness is straightforward: In some long-ago time, a poor peasant girl named Jeanne, after being raped and degraded, makes a pact with the devil to gain power over those who would subjugate her. (The film is a loose adaptation of Jules Michelet’s 1862 work Satanism and Witchcraft.) At first she resists the penis-shaped demon, but he proves too compelling. Once empowered, she leads the village into freaky flower orgies, and later — like her namesake Joan of Arc and other reputed witchy women — she is destroyed (or is she?) at the burning stake.
But you won’t be watching the avant-garde Belladonna for the story. Instead, it offers hand-drawn animation — ranging from trippy psychedelics and line drawings reminiscent of early 1970s advertising to lots of sexually suggestive illustration. (“Belladonna” is both a deadly flower and a beautiful woman, and the work’s female protagonist is frequently depicted erotically entwined with flowers.) There are nods to both traditional Japanese watercolors and the swirly, surrealistic rock posters of the late 1960s. The soundtrack veers from upbeat lounge to psych-rock, and the total experience is very midnight movie: Relax your mind and just let the sounds and images, some beautiful, some disturbing, swirl around you.