Reviews of Beauty and the Beast (1946) and related work

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

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

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“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). It turns out the mononoke is really a human boy who underwent a monstrous metamorphosis because of his brutish habits; a typical moral for children, like something you might see in the brothers Grimm or H. C. Andersen. The visual design of the mononoke, on the other hand, 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. It’s whimsical in exactly the way the 1997 film is not.

As in the work of the brothers Grimm, there are dark motifs in this moral trichotomy: War; the innocent youngest girl wedged between her evil father, her selfish mother and older sisters, and her beast of a suitor; her father turning the family home into an unrecognizable industrial stronghold and oppressing the common people, ending in their fiery rebellion. However, the core is the logic of the folktale. Miyzaki realized this, writing—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).

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‣‣ “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).

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‣‣ “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).

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‣‣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).

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‣‣ 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).

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‣‣‣ 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).

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‣‣‣ “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).

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‣‣‣ “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).

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‣‣‣ “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).

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‣‣‣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).

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‣‣‣ “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).

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‣‣‣ “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).

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

Review refers to the Swedish dub.

animation Disney fiction moving picture same source material