Reviews of “Beauty and the Beast” (1756) and related work

“Beauty and the Beast” (1756Text)

Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (writer).

Read in 2022.

Read in Swedish and English, in various versions. These versions were attributed to Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve rather than de Beaumont, but none of them were long enough to be de Villeneuve’s work.

De Beaumont abridged de Villeneuve’s 1740 version and turned it into more of a fairy tale in the process. The result is an interesting allegory, both of patrilocal marriage practices and of the tendency for patrilocal societies to make monsters of men. The symbolic polarization is typical of Western culture: The feminine is associated with (valued for) beauty, beauty is short-circuited to mean moral quality, and love (meaning the institution of marriage) turns the ugly (masculine) man into a beautiful (feminine) man.

The allegorical undertones are weakened by the usual narcissism of European folktales from this period: The scale of wealth and status-seeking (Beauty/Bella starts out as a merchant’s daughter, then becomes a peasant or normal person, then marries into royalty), and evil rivals, in this case Beauty’s shallow and greedy sisters. The Beast is characterized mainly as gruff and rich. His appearance is not described and there are no action sequences stronger than the beast first revealing himself to the father, which stops at a threat.

text fiction

Beauty and the Beast (1946Moving picture, 93 minutes)

In its best moments, mesmerizing, yet quite flawed as a whole.

moving picture adaptation fiction

“Princess Mononoke: The First Story” (1980Sequential art with text)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer-artist).

Read in 2021.

This review refers to the 2014 VIZ edition, which is Jocelyne Allen’s English-language adaptation of the “initial setting” (shoki settei) original.

A defeated feudal lord accepts an offer from an architectural ornament and becomes possessed by a demon, thus taking his revenge upon the enemy at his gates. His meek third daughter worries about this and wants to free her father from demonic possession, but he gets rid of her by fulfilling a promise he’d already made, marrying her off to a barbaric animal spirit who lives far away in the wilderness.

Strongly influenced by the logic of folktales, not just “Beauty and the Beast”. The lord seeing the mysterious light of the mononoke’s forest dwelling, for example, must be designed to recall the opening of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (ca. 900 CE), rather than the mysteriously snow-free trees of the Beast’s domain. It turns out the mononoke is really a human boy who underwent a monstrous metamorphosis, not because he was cursed by someone like de Beaumont’s prince (de Beaumont does not characterize the source of the curse), but because of his brutish habits. This too is a typical moral for children, like something you might see in the brothers Grimm or H. C. Andersen, but it usually happens to the protagonist or antagonist rather than the love interest.

The visual design of the mononoke is like a toy: A round, cartoonish body like “Panda! Go Panda!” (1972), pulled along by harnessed rats, or flying with giant と on the wings of his purple glider. This is even more whimsical than the magical horse in de Beaumont’s version of the fairy tale, in exactly the way the 1997 film is not.

There are darker motifs in this moral trichotomy than in the original. The father is evil. There is war. The bad sisters are still present, but here the innocent youngest girl is wedged between them, her father, her selfish mother, and her beast of a suitor. Her father also turns the family home into an unrecognizable industrial stronghold and oppresses the common people instead of becoming a farmer himself; this ends in their fiery rebellion. However, Miyazaki understood the logic of the folktale and kept its core, at first. He wrote—in his afterword to the 1993 edition—that to overcome the story’s flaws he had to engage in a “harsh and magnificent pilgrimage”, psychoanalyzing the 1980 version to produce the 1997 version. His success in this endeavour was phenomenal, but the fact that he kept almost nothing reveals the quality of the original.

References here: The title of Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky (1986), Porco Rosso (1992).

sequential art text adaptation fiction

‣‣ “The Pictures Are Already Moving Inside My Head” (1994Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (interviewee).

Read in Starting Point.

The publication of “The First Story”, the start of production for its film adaptation, and Miyazaki’s idiosyncratic use of watercolours in both projects.

This is almost a news article inserted into a guide to art materials. It’s based on an interview with Miyazaki, but is not a transcript of that interview. The article explicitly refers to Princess Mononoke as an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, as the concept had not yet been reworked. The article ends with an interesting paragraph on Victorian villains, suggesting that both the father and the beast are in fact evil (and therefore cool), but unusually hard to get rid of.

References here: “The Battle Between Humans and Ferocious Gods — The Goal of This Film” (1995), Starting Point: 1979–1996 (1996/2009), “You Cannot Depict the Wild Without Showing Its Bruality and Cruelty: A Dialogue with Tadao Satō” (1997).

text document non-fiction Japanese production

‣‣ “The Battle Between Humans and Ferocious Gods — The Goal of This Film” (1995Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer).

Read in 2021.

Read in The Art of Princess Mononoke and Turning Point.

A statement on the new direction of the project after deciding on its setting in the Muromachi period.

This was a more unpredictable and fluid time, more magnanimous and free, with less clear class distinctions between warriors and villagers and women as depicted in the drawings of artisans and tradespeople. In such a time, the contours of life and death were very clear.

Here the turn away from “The First Story” and “The Pictures Are Already Moving Inside My Head” (1994) seems well under way, despite this having been first written as a proposal five months before “The Pictures”, according to the official Point collections.

References here: The Art of Princess Mononoke (1997), Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

text spin-off non-fiction Japanese production

‣‣Princess Mononoke Planning Memo” (1995Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer).

Read in Starting Point.

References here: The title of Princess Mononoke, Starting Point: 1979–1996 (1996/2009).

text spin-off non-fiction Japanese production

‣‣ Princess Mononoke (1997Moving picture, 134 minutes)

Suzuki Toshio (producer), Miyazaki Hayao (writer-director).

A boar god poisoned by hate threatens a village and infects a young man. Ostracized and dying, the man journeys to find a cure. He stumbles upon human plans to take the head of the god of life and death.

Complex, imaginative and beautiful, Mononoke lacks the sentimentality that tinges so much of Miyazaki’s other work. It is a masterpiece of fantasy, with a far more compelling “view from below” than The Hobbit (1937). That is because it is serious. Unlike the 1980 version (“The First Story”), this one consciously eschews stereotypes and the comforts of moralism and easy psychoanalysis, though the forces of merchandising are not wholly absent.

The story is set in Muromachi-period Japan (14th-16th century) but the influences range far afield. The stag god looks like Miyazaki’s tribute to the senior prince in Bambi (1942). The name of Ashitaka’s own red elk, Yakkul, is from The Journey of Shuna (1983), as is much of the structure. The boars remind me of the tusked ogre Humbaba in The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE), another doomed and fearsome guardian of threatened nature. None of that is in the 1980 version. Instead, some of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982) is reflected here, and Miyazaki realizes his ambition in “About Period Dramas” (1985) for “someone” to draw more realistic battles in a period film.

The original’s adult feudal lord became Ashitaka, a noble boy who pays dearly for his fearsome prowess, but he is a marginal existence, trekking out of impoverished hinterlands with no lust for power. This is a form of reference back to The Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun (1968), where the seed of Ghibli was sown. Ashitaka’s people is the Emishi, a small pocket of an old ethnic group marginalized long ago by the immigrating Yamato Japanese who have been dominant for many centuries. Takahata wanted the Hols project to be about the plight of the Emishi, but the studio refused. After 29 years, Miyazaki had the clout.

The original’s vivacious beast became San and the rest of the Moro clan. Their fight for nature, though it is dour and violent, expresses a powerful love, visible in every line and shade of the astonishing background paintings. The original’s third major character, the princess, became Eboshi: A capable, civilized antagonist, with none of the original’s meekness or mercy. An extraordinary adaptation and a true epic for the 21st century.

References here: The title of Princess Mononoke, Ghibli movie titles, The hand of a princess?, On the wall of Tataraba, “On Japan’s Animation Culture” (1997), “I Want to Fill the Space Between Myself and the Audience” (1998), “Animation and Animism: Thoughts on the Living ‘Forest’” (1998), Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2001/2005), “‘Don’t Worry, You’ll Be All Right’: What I’d Like to Convey to Children” (2001), “The Lights of Zenshōen” (2002), “The Fujimi Highland Is Fascinating” (2002/2004), “I’ve Always Wanted to Create a Film About Which I Could Say, ‘I’m Just Glad I Was Born, so I Could Make This’” (2005), Legend of the Millennium Dragon (2011).

moving picture implementation Ghibli Japanese production animation fiction

‣‣‣ The Art of Princess Mononoke (1997Nonsequential art with text)

Nieda Takami (editor).

Read in 2021.

I read the 2014 VIZ edition in English language.

The production of the 1997 film with an emphasis on concept and background art, usually with single sentences of description. The book also includes a suite of poems written by Miyazaki for Hisaishi to compose the music, the 1994 design document “The Battle Between Humans and Ferocious Gods”, essays on the use of CGI, a production diary etc.

A type of book made virtually obsolete by digital reproduction technology, but it’s nicely curated and still a very pleasant browsing experience. The original “proposal to acquire film rights” for Rowlf (1971), which inspired “The First Story” is available in Starting Point: 1979–1996 (1996/2009).

References here: “Ghiblies” (2000).

nonsequential art text spin-off non-fiction Ghibli poetry

‣‣‣ “The Elemental Power of the Forest Also Lives Within the Hearts of Human Beings” (1997Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (interviewee).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

Among other topics, the origin of the “night walker” (didarabocchi) in folklore, the role of Jigo as a “company man” (“All the fathers nowadays are living like this”), and the meaning of the final scene, where the landscape of nature is replaced by a more modern cultural landscape.

Another reference to “A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations” (1991/2007), and a revisit to the Gulf-War-inspired thesis of “A Nation That Merely Dithers Around” (1991).

References here: Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

text document non-fiction Japanese production

‣‣‣ “Those Who Live in the Natural World All Have the Same Values” (1997Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

I avoided having characters in the film engage in difficult reasoning. We are now living in age when we can sniff out the lies in the excuses we hear.

We are finished with denunciations. It is time for each person to think about what he or she can do in everyday life. It is enough that people do only what they can. Saving trees and sweeping up one’s neighborhood are of equal value.

An essay that, like the many interviews with Miyazaki from this period, shows him celebrating determination and animal vitality over critical or science-based thinking. He again pays tribute to Shiba Ryōtarō for his understanding of some historical facts, but he asks rhetorically, “What kind of concept, then, are we to bring to unify the individual and the species? Actually, I have no clue.” He endorses animism but simultaneously rejects it, as a non-solution. He asserts that “human beings are suffering for sins committed in previous lives”, possibly in a secular sense, but he also asserts that “anthropocentric thinking is fundamentally wrong”, which should probably be considered a contradiction.

References here: Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

text document non-fiction Japanese production

‣‣‣ “You Cannot Depict the Wild Without Showing Its Bruality and Cruelty: A Dialogue with Tadao Satō” (1997Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (interviewee), Satō Tadao (interviewer).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

Princess Mononoke in relation to misleading period films like Seven Samurai (1954); in relation to an anthropocentric “Kamakura Buddhism” leading into the Muromachi period; as a creative and financial gamble with no clear target audience; and in relation to Western influences (“Latinization leads to destruction of the ecosystem because it means becoming hedonistic.”), among other things.

Period films are dismissed mainly over issues of worldview, for having modern attitudes rather than for messing up the battles as was Miyazaki’s focus a decade earlier, in “About Period Dramas” (1985). Miyazaki discusses the Emishi, but only how much about them the studio invented for lack of knowledge. There is an interesting side track about where he got the idea for Ashitaka’s bruises and San’s tattoos, namely from commonplace side tracks in folktales: Motifs apparently irrelevant to the narrative, like birth marks on princesses, and the didarabocchi which has no “logical role”. He also mentions the size of tame vs. natural yaks, but does not refer to Castle in the Sky (1986) where Sheeta’s family herds yaks in Gondoa.

On the subject of Eboshi, he brings up the same Victorian story that he alluded to in “The Pictures Are Already Moving Inside My Head” (1994), with more details but no title. He again asserts that Eboshi is a devil, and not “a devil that is incomprehensible” like that of The Omen (1976), but gregarious and popular, “a figure that resides within the type of person idealized by modern people”. Not quite Dostoevsky’s Satan in The Brothers Karamazov (1879), but along those lines.

References here: “Forty-four Questions on Princess Mononoke for Director Hayao Miyazaki” (1998), Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

text document non-fiction Japanese production

‣‣‣Princess Mononoke and the Attraction of Medieval Times: A Dialogue with Yoshihiko Amino” (1997Text)

Amino Yoshihiko (participant), Miyazaki Hayao (participant).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

Amino (1928–2004) was a Marxist historian who specialized in a people’s history of medieval Japan. He claims here, somewhat boldly and relying on a Jesuit missionary, that Japanese men would borrow money at interest from their wives, because men would not be considered to own much money, despite owning land; the women got their money farming silk.

Though Amino is Miyazaki’s senior, their exchange in this dialogue happens on fairly equal terms. Amino largely confirms the impopular view of history that is at the root of the film. They agree that commonplace motifs in period dramas are often false, with the example that the peasants in Seven Samurai (1954) would, in reality, not have constituted a homogeneous social class, and would have been armed; the film supposedly represents the experience of WW2 Japanese troops returning home to a disarmed and modern civil society. They also mention Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior (1980) and Heaven and Earth (1990) for the perennial complaint of cavalry charges.

The historian also confirms Miyazaki’s understanding that large-scale ironworks like Tataraba are ahistorical for the Muromachi period. Miyazaki explains that he got the idea from the Great Leap Forward! The director claims that there were internal complaints about the historical perspective from staff at Ghibli: “This isn’t the real Japan.” No wonder. He also offers a background for Eboshi, both extradiegetic (“Tate Eboshi who vanquished Akura-ō”) and intradiegetic (Chinese pirates, tongue in cheek).

References here: Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

text document non-fiction Japanese production

‣‣‣ “Forty-four Questions on Princess Mononoke for Director Hayao Miyazaki” (1998Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (interviewee).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point as “Forty-four Questions on Princess Mononoke for Director Hayao Miyazaki from International Journalists at the Berlin International Film Festival”.

Another interview, another interpretation of Seven Samurai (1954), this one claiming that the samurai are “modeled on the Russian intelligentsia” and on labourers after Japan lost the Pacific War.

The variety of unlisted interviewers weakens this text, but as always, Miyazaki comes up with some interesting answers. He says that the most difficult part of the project was “solely the story”, ultimately because it isn’t formulaic, but he filigrees off of this simple and accurate answer into a fascinating remark, that “this film is not for people who are psychologically healthy and strong”. He explains that he abstained from adding “a few more shots to express the main character’s emotions” because he thought that anybody who’d suffered would understand Ashitaka’s pain without such shots, but then he realized that that wasn’t everybody in the audience. This sounds like a bad ad-hoc defence against someone else calling the characters dry, or perhaps it connects to Miyazaki’s lament in “You Cannot Depict the Wild” (1997) that he wanted another 30,000 cels.

Given the setting of these interviews, the director naturally fields a lot of questions about environmental messaging (“We don’t subordinate the natural setting to the characters”), but also about the features of the film that most shocked Western journalists unfamiliar with animation: Violence and realistic moral composites, even in the environment, and big eyes. Miyazaki has intelligent responses for everyone. The eyes are a commercial decision, and an aesthetic one.

Some particularly confused interviewer asked whether Miyazaki would prefer to make live-action films, and he responds that Japan looks good in black and white, but in colour live-action films from the country, “the scenery became boring” and all the people look boring too! Instead of bringing up his usual arguments that animation lets you play with scales to bring life and perspective, here he says more simply that animation allows him to depict nature. He also repeats a point from e.g. “The World of Anime and the Scenario” (1995), that he works with movies because people don’t usually walk out of the cinema even if they’re mad, so that movies are “a chance to get angry or be happy”.

References here: “Animation and Animism: Thoughts on the Living ‘Forest’” (1998), Ponyo (2008), Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

text document non-fiction

‣‣‣ “Traditional Japanese Aestheticism in Princess Mononoke: An Interview by Roger Ebert” (1999Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (interviewee), Roger Ebert (interviewer).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

It’s mostly Miyazaki correcting Ebert’s misapprehensions, including the idea that Ghibli staff will do what Miyazaki tells them to do because they are staff. Ebert assumes that the studio’s incredibly hard-working artists are wage slaves with no creative control of their own, like Disney animators. Similarly, Miyazaki politely evades the American critic’s assertion that the art and story of Mononoke are all traditionally and specifically Japanese, like Hokusai woodblock prints.

According to Miyazaki, Suzuki Toshio (mentioned by role, not name) suggested including the most brutal scenes from Mononoke in the television advertisements for it, to show parents that although it was not officially rated for adults only (Japan had no intermediate PG-13 rating, only 18+), it may be unsuitable for children. This is in the context of correcting Ebert on the idea that Japanese animation is viewed domestically as “equal with” live action; Miyazaki disparages Japanese animated “films that treat women in a very sexual way or show violence just for the sake violence”.

References here: Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

text document non-fiction Japanese production

Beauty and the Beast (1991Moving picture, 84 minutes)

Review refers to the Swedish dub.

moving picture adaptation Disney animation fiction

Belle (2021Moving picture, 121 minutes)

Seen in 2022.

Suzu still hangs out with the aging village choir as its youngest member, but hasn’t sung for years: Not since her mother died saving a kid they didn’t know from a flood. Since then, Suzu has shrunk into herself, barely talking to her father or her old friends. She only talks to Hiroka, a girl who knows a lot about the virtual-reality app named U. Advertisements for U say you can be another person in there, among five billion others.

Your U avatar is automatically generated for you and the true identity of the user is guarded. Suzu picks the name “Bell” for hers, because that is the English translation of her name, written 鈴. As Bell, with Hiroka’s help, she is able to sing again. Her fans add another “e” to her name: Belle, meaning Beauty.

Despite Suzu’s retreating behaviour in the real world, the depth of her sorrow seems to give her power in U, by the same algorithm that creates her avatar. This is also true of a brawler who’s been disrupting the virtual world for the past seven months. He has earned the nickname Dragon, or the Beast.

Heavy with intertext. The setting of U is based on Gibson’s gravity-free cyberspace in Neuromancer (1984) and to a greater extent, Stephenson’s more Earth- and game-like metaverse in Snow Crash (1992). There is a cyberpunk layer to the narrative where Hiroka as Lain (1998) cunningly exploits the futuristic Internet, including uncovering a catfish. However, the world outside U is contemporary Japan, very slowly depopulating; it is not Gibson’s more advanced future. U itself is also more naïvely imagined than the worlds of Gibson or Stephenson, or real social media.

U is ostensibly governed by its five creators, the “Voices”. They correspond loosely to Beauty’s six uncharacterized brothers in the folktale, like the five older members of the village choir who are Beauty’s five sisters, albeit less bad. The Voices take a hands-off approach to governance. They are never seen. This is similar to the behaviour of Silicon Valley’s social-media founders, who are rarely willing to police their networks, yet there is almost no criticism in it. There is a moderator figure in U, a sort of policeman dressed like a Tezuka Osamu superhero (a speech bubble in Spanish says he’s doing cosplay blanco), but he is a martial-arts champion and his only association with the Voices appears to be a weak beam weapon that shows a user as they are instead of showing their avatar, if you can hit them. The moderator is corrupt, but this is the only hint that U itself might have real problems.

The virtual landscape of U is not commercialized or otherwise oppressive. Little creativity is shown in it, but it is basically utopian, like “A Romance in Virtual Space” (1997). The presumably proprietary, secret algorithms that absorb a user’s personal data to construct the user’s avatar seem to work just fine, like the magic of the folktale. There is no indication that private data could leak or be sold, as is routinely done on Facebook. The Beast has (owns?) AI helpers, corresponding to the invisible magic features doing the work of servants around the castle in the folktale, but while the AIs are deceptive, they too work just fine, on fantasy premises. Belle gets crowded by other avatars at one point, but no more disturbing consequences of avatar-on-avatar clipping are ever shown; such a crowding interaction isn’t possible in the Metaverse product owned by the real-world Meta corporation, which has even removed the lower bodies of avatars to curb sexual abuse. At one point, the Beast’s opponents claim that he fights unfairly by corrupting data, but this is not substantiated or characterized further. I cannot determine whether it is even a weak analogue of Gibson’s black ICE.

Suzu grieves for her mother, a character absent in the folktale. Suzu herself is of course the Beauty of the folktale, but is not heavily stylized as beautiful. Her 2D character design instead includes deep-set, rather gloomy eyes that make her look plain for her age compared to her friends or her avatar, which is nice. The Beast’s tussles with the moderator and his martial-arts henchmen add a layer of action in poor cel-style 3D animation. In addition to the paralyzing grief, the SF action, the fantasy plot elements retained from “Beauty and the Beast” (the magic castle, the rose, the mystery, deceptive appearances etc.), and the traces of cyberpunk fluidly influenced by contemporary Internet use, Belle also has two high-school romances and a drama of child abuse that is supposed to explain the properties of the Beast. On top of all that, there is a prominent layer of musical theatre, which is only partly integrated. Nominally, it’s Hiroka who composes the music, but it might as well be the extradiegetic fiat of Disney’s adaptation.

The narrative is overburdened by all these genres and disconnected islands of drama. Some of what happens is plainly illogical, like the long delay from Suzu being seen with Shinobu to the sudden influx of hundreds of messages about that. Much else is not satisfactorily resolved: Suzu’s father is under-characterized and the Beast’s father implausibly walks away crying just because Suzu got in his way; he is never seen again. As in the folktale, much is never explained; for example, since the Beast in this version is not a prince, how did he get the castle and the AI helpers, and how could he possibly be hidden there or anywhere if the Voices have sanctioned the moderators to punish him?

What saves Belle as a film is an unusual emotional sincerity, coupled with director Hosoda eschewing his usual fetishes. It is not a run-of-the-mill idol-themed special-teen anime. The pacing does suffer a bit to match the music, as when Suzu’s whales swim idly behind her for a few beats in the globular arena, but the music is better than that of Carole & Tuesday (2019). It helps paper over gaps in the setting and plot, and does much-needed tonal control. I saw it in a theatre, which probably helped keep the overall experience together.

My favourite scene makes clever use of repetition, which is another way that Hosoda carefully moulds the complexity of the overall experience. It’s the scene where Ruka confesses to Kamishin. Examples of repetition in it are the ticket booth (Suzu passes it at the start of the film), Kamishin reusing the same phrase he did with Suzu, and Suzu backing away in embarrassment when they start taking about Belle as a shared interest, in much the same way as Kamishin backed away earlier. The two pairs of characters move in front of the static camera, sometimes out of the shot or out of the archetypal substance of the scene and into other branches of the plotting. The scene is perfectly paced, animated with appropriate individual physicality, funny, exciting and easy to follow, but also gentle, almost Ozu-esque. The film as a whole, for better and worse, is a lot more varied.

moving picture adaptation Japanese production animation fiction