A Tepid Apology to Beauty and the Beast (1991)

_Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke whe (4).png

I didn’t like Beauty and the Beast when I was little. I loved that movie. I was obsessed with the ballroom scene, the dancing cups and the at the time (and still mostly) fantastic animation. But I was a fickle child and that movie didn’t stay my favorite for long.

Like many of the things I put away in my childhood, I did put away many Disney movies. College brought with it cynicism and cynicism meant that I was, for a moment, too good for Disney movies. I was one of those folks on the internet with all the feminist hot-takes about Disney movies and if I could take those years back, I would. For the longest time, I was convinced that Beauty and the Beast was about Stockholm Syndrome and incredibly anti-feminist and overall, just a poor piece of media.

That was until the live-action remake made me reconsider my feelings.

Now, there are plenty of videos (like this one and this one) that far more eloquently explain the myriad of failures of this movie; so I’ll keep this portion brief. The live-action film calling out the “mistakes” of the animated movie only stand to make the live-action movie seem weaker.

Making Belle more “feminist” simply makes her a lamp of a character. Gaston having PTSD is…insulting. LeFou being gay is…also insulting. None of the changes the live-action film makes to the animated classic help the plot, character or themes of the film.

But this isn’t about the new movie. This is about me falling back in love with the animated classic.

For now, a synopsis: Beauty and the Beast (the Disney animated classic) was released in 1991 and is based off a classic French fairytale. The story surrounds Belle and her desire to find adventure in the great wide somewhere Her father goes off on a fetch quest and ends up in the claws of a Beast, The Beast, in a castle on a mountain that in no way looks scary at all. Belle decides to find her dad, because of course, and goes up to the not scary castle and sees the not at all scary Beast. The Beast bargains with Belle, saying that if she stays in the Enchanted Castle full of living enchanted dinnerware and such with him forever, he’ll let her dad go. Belle agrees, because plot, and magic castle-based bonding ensues. Eventually, Belle has to go back and rescue her dad from the villain I forgot to mention: Gaston. There is a very dramatic castle battle and then The Beast ‘dies’ turns human only after killing Gaston and then the pair can go off.

There’s plenty to love about this movie in hindsight. It has amazing graphics that are still fantastic and whimsical, a soundtrack that is still lovely and voice acting that is still well done.

But I want to talk about what made me like this movie again and it honestly may surprise you.

It was Gaston.

Gaston as far as villains go is pretty special. If you watch the movie, despite all of his scary framing, he makes a lot of sense. He’s a not-so smart hunter who is attractive and has a semi-homoerotic harem. His pursuit of Belle makes sense; she’s the only girl who won’t fall for his charm immediately.

Gaston’s songs are actually what turned me more towards liking this film again. His main song where a group of men sing his praises is hilarious but also wonderful social commentary on what makes the muscle jock oftentimes so popular in society. But the more interesting song is The Mob Song, lead by Gaston as he whips up a mob to fight against The Beast. The song explicitly encapsulates fear-mongering, paranoia and refusal to listen to reason. That message doesn’t seem so off in this current socio-political climate.

But this is a tepid apology. I do still have issues with this film. It is for sure a kid’s movie and I can admit that but jeez, the tone here is a problem. This film has some seriously dark moments and then Goofy laughs thrown in. Really, most of the 90s Disney films have a tone problem but this film has some pretty awful tone shifts like Gaston literally falling to his literal death.

Which brings us to the part of the film that I still dislike: Belle. And that surprises many people. Folks would assume that me, being a bookish know-it-all, would love Belle. But I’m not a fan. She claims to want adventure and she starts off different and unique but the romance that has to happen between her and The Beast just bores me to tears. For someone who wants more than her small provincial town, she sure does settle down quick. I’m sure for some, she’s just fine, but for me, I’ve been bored with her for over two decades.

And the themes of the film still seem really washy to me, especially now as a critical reader and writer. The themes of wanting more and not judging people by their outsides are the two biggest we’ll tackle here. The theme of being small for your town is very 90s Disney but really, Belle’s wish isn’t met in the end, she moves literally down the street from her childhood home to a castle. The second theme of not judging a book by its cover is also undercut by the fact that The Beast doesn’t remain a beast and while, yes, I cop to the fact that a Disney movie couldn’t be so progressive that it would transcend species getting together, it’s an irk I’ve had even with the original novel: if the theme is that beauty can be found in even in the heart of a beast, it’s undercut by having The Beast be secretly actually hot. Phantom of the Opera handles that a little better because we come to find Eric as inwardly beautiful despite his physical looks (we’re ignoring all the places where Eric is really problematic for now but rest assured I have not forgotten about that).

But all of that aside, the animated classic is a classic for a reason. And while the critical response to the film seems to lose sight of what actually matters, I have one thing to say.

I am sorry.

This movie is still beautiful and full of heart and whimsy that does not need to be explained. The live-action film shows us that in very stark contrast. The logic of an enchanted castle of course falls apart once you think about it but that’s the literal point. It’s an enchanted castle, it isn’t supposed to make sense. Sure, Belle isn’t as self-actualized as we remember but that’s okay. It was the 1990s, the internet hadn’t invented feminism yet. It’s okay that the tone is weird and that Gaston doesn’t feel like a villain. It’s okay that The Beast is a jerk sometimes. It’s all okay.

It won’t take away from the fun, the whimsy and the love put into this film. It won’t take away that Tale as Old as Time may be one of the best animated sequences done ever, it doesn’t take away that the movie can make an entire generation sing Be Our Guest, it won’t take any of that away.

The film is better than I ever gave it credit for, and for that, I am sincerely sorry._Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he.png

Regarding Uncle Walt

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”   - C.S. Lewis.png

I grew up during the height of the Disney Renaissance during the 1990s and while I, for certain, had fond memories of Disney movies as a child, many of them sort of passed through me like water. I had many favorites but essentially, each one that came out was my favorite. I waffled back and forth between Pocahontas as a favorite to loving Tarzan to quickly shifting to whatever flavor of the year movie came out. Not to mention the immense soft spot back then (and now) I had for Don Bluth’s mostly terrifying movies which I think during my childhood were much more impactful: I had much stronger feelings about Anastasia and An American Tail than I ever did for The Lion King. That also excludes that my childhood was dominated by other forms of American animation. Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Toons were also a huge influence on top of all the other shows I likely should not have been watching because it was the 90s and parents assumed that animated meant safe.

I say this to illustrate a point: I had to learn to love Disney movies. I had to learn to appreciate Disney movies. And considering that I was for entirely too long one of those annoying people on the internet full of quippy hot-takes, I have a fair amount of Disney penance to account for.

And with that said, I’d like to talk about Disney movies: the ones I love, the ones I can’t stand, the issues I have with a few of them and of course, Old Uncle Walt.

Since I was born in the 90s, I saw many of the movies that make people think of Disney movies. I couldn’t tell you why (outside of being a fickle child) that those movies sort of just ran through me. I can’t say it was an intelligence thing, I had long since memorized television shows and memorable lines from the shows that mattered to me even as a child. Disney movies just didn’t do much for me as a kid so when I finally grew up some and came into my teens, it was like seeing many of these movies for the first time.

I started college and managed to bring with me many of the great Disney films and to be honest, none of them impressed me. I was full of angst and ennui and I didn’t have time for the sentiment and whimsy of a Disney movie. But I could appreciate some of the darker themes of some of the riskier movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which may get a blog post all on its own). This, of course, excludes many of the Pixar movies because those can make me cry and I’ve cried enough for the sake of this blog. College brought many of those weak criticisms against Disney movies like them not being feminist enough or Beauty and the Beast being about Stockholm Syndrome (I will repent for that sin next post, I promise.). And many of those aren’t false, simply misplaced. Sure, Mulan is self-actualized and Jasmine is a sexy lamp and while we’re at it, no one gives Cinderella enough credit! But many of those shallow dives don’t give those films the credit they deserve.

It wasn’t until the later years of college and really post-grad that I found a deeper appreciation for Disney movies as cultural touchstones and as art. Who knows. Maybe I found some of that sentiment in me after the loss of a parent or I was just a little less jaded. I was able to see them for their skill, their magic and their music. I tend to use musicals to clean and sew so in the heavier workload years of college I found immense solace in something I could sing to and had a beat: it kept me motivated in between costumes and essays. At that time, my bread and butter of beloved movies remained the same: Hercules and Pocahontas as well as Hunchback but that’s because it never really left the rotation.  

Unfortunately, the formal years of book-learning meant the flames of old cynicism began to flare again. It was difficult to deal with the representation and writing in many Disney movies and while, sure, they’re for children; it’s still less than ideal to have old tired tropes rehashed for new vulnerable audiences.

That’s right: feminism ruined Disney movies.

The book-learning also brought in with it a very complicated relationship with Mr. Disney. One of my college senpais was deep into Disney fandom so when I discussed my issues with how the company treated (does still treat) its employees or how the animation team continued (still does continue) to whitewash history and people for the sake of “safe”  and profitable stories, my criticisms were often met with harsh silence or a laundry list of excuses. Let’s be clear, Disney was a complicated man who did his best but was a businessman first. I can’t knock the man’s hustle but I can be disappointed with how the company treats its staff and the land around their parks. I can also still have a strained relationship with its characters. While for many The Princess and the Frog was a huge step in the right direction for me it was a tired limp towards what was long since an understanding of demographics. While many praised Moana, I saw mostly a reboot of Pocahontas with much less casual racism and whataboutism.

It’s okay to have a complicated relationship with Disney as a person and as a company and as a brand but that doesn’t mean that I am too much of a contrarian to admit when something is good. The Lion King still can make me cry [An aside: so the fall after my mother passed away, Amber and I were babysitting a friend’s young son. We decided to put on a movie and Amber chose The Lion King because it’s a good movie with good songs and really the movie was for us and not for the child we were watching. Around the scene of Simba trying to wake his dead father, I started crying. Silent sobbing is the better term. Amber then looked to me and realized what had happened and she said “Oh, no! I’m a monster!” and immediately hugged me. I assured her I was fine but this happened well into my 20s; these movies are still powerful.] I can still admit that the water animation in Moana is impressive. I can still admit that I cried during Mother Knows Best because it so painfully echoed much of the gaslighting I’ve endured growing up. I can tell you that parts of Hunchback still give me chills. I can still dislike their desire to make a monopoly of entertainment. I can dislike their choices by continuing to think that diversity is a myth and hedging their bets on mostly “safe” white storytelling. I can be disappointed in all of those things.

But I can still say that I love Disney movies.

 

Spirited Away and Westernization: Is It All Disney?

The film Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki is the coming of age story about a girl named Chihiro and her magical journey through a land of spirits, demons and monsters.  This is thought to be a quintessential Japanese story of determination and strength through what is to most a very exotic and foreign land but upon closer inspection one can see that this film has deeper Western influence within it than at first glance despite this being Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled “return to Japan”.

Westernization as defined by the dictionary is “the influence of Western culture on non-Western cultures”. This can also be called the imposing of Western ideals on non-Western cultures.  Westernization in Japan began in the Meiji Era in the late 17th to 18th century when American traders forced the Japanese to open their ports and flourished again during and shortly after World War II and has since gained speed with globalization. Westernization can be seen not just in the culture and language but in various films and publications from Japan. Everywhere from McDonald’s to hearing more and more people in Japan speaking English, Western influence has been the battle we seem to be losing as we struggle to preserve cultures outside of our own.

I’ve watched this film countless times and never gave it any thought, I always assumed it was just to appease American audiences and must have had something to do with the Disney influence but further investigation revealed that it is not only intentional but original to the film.  It all started with a moment of watching the film with friends and keying in on one key line. “Don’t worry, Daddy’s got credit cards.” Chihiro’s father went on in the key scene at the café for the spirits with Chihiro’s parents who up until then I never considered to be overly Westernized but that sort of flaunting of wealth and money and then the overly pluralized capitalist remark from her father just sealed the deal, this film has more Western influence in it than I think anyone knew.

The first place this is apparent is in Chihiro herself. She spends most of her time in the film yelling, whining or complaining.  These are very non-typical traits of a Japanese character of firstly her age being that of ten years old and of her gender, being female. The typical Japanese girl is even in this modern era meant to be quiet and respectful, polite, considerate and respect her parents. Even with the slight influence the West has provided in modern Japan, Japanese children even up until young adulthood maintain a level of respect that is uniquely Eastern.  Chihiro was unlike any character I had seen in a Japanese film before.  This is meant to show the duality of characterization and she was meant to provide a foil to the traditional background of the film but she seemed to be a more basic example of Western influence than a mere foil to the tradition of the film.
The second place is in the main setting itself, the Bath House of the Spirits. The Bath House is run by the witch Yubaba, who is a greedy, sinister and selfish character who runs her bathhouse strictly and with an iron fist. Firstly the bathhouse in Japanese culture is a mostly male dominated realm not to be owned by a female. And a female with such strong Western ideals. Though this is one of the more traditional parts of the story, most often in Japanese myths women that as wicked and greedy are shown as grotesque as Yubaba and are often the villain of the story as with Yubaba.  She is also dressed surprisingly in a Victorian outfit that seems to be a nod to 19th century England; her clothes are tight-fitting and show off her large broad body which shows strength and ferocity, traits that are uncommon for even villains of Japanese myth. Such capitalistic greed and concern for money and self-preservation as Yubaba shows are surprisingly common for Japanese myth but her clothing, style of speech are distinctly Western. But there is one key that does tie her back to tradition, she takes Chihiro’s name, this is a very Eastern concern, the tie between the soul and the name. But in a moment of Western concern Yubaba takes Chihiro’s first name and not her family name which even for girls is of more concern than their first. Between her pipe smoking and over-concern with her gold stash she reminded me more of a female brothel owner in the South than a Japanese villain.

Within the bathhouse’s work structure we also see another shout back to Victorian England and to factory life of the Industrial Revolution. The workers at the bathhouse seem to be of a lower class and cannot afford to actually enjoy the bathhouse’s luxury but are resistant to change when the human girl Chihiro is offered a job. Each department refuses to take her and such specialization within the workplace seems more at home in a factory in London than a bathhouse in Japan. Also the poor treatment in which they are treated, and conditions they work are of poor standard, crowded and very busy. Not serene at all or zen-like similar to how we believe and have record of most bathhouses being run.
The foremen are cruel and make harsh comments to the female workers, the female workers often girls and young women have to work very hard. In traditional bathhouses women were only allowed to work as geisha and could not even do any of the actual work of the bathhouse and that was relegated to the workers of the bathhouse who were usually male and they worked in what were considered to be normally very equal and fair conditions. These factory conditions did not appear in Japan until well after the Meiji era and the beginning of World War II and is by no means traditional.

The third distinction made was with the boiler man and the overall industrial feel of the film. Despite the film’s backdrop being a very traditional Japanese bathhouse that could have been plucked out of a Meiji Era picture book, the boiler room is a testament to steam era technology that seemed to bypass Japan and seemed to come more from Victorian England than late Tokugawa Japan. Coal power is distinctly Western and the more traditional form used to power bathhouses came from manpower or natural geothermic reactions.  The skyline also in the film is very modern and Western, though it does seem to seamlessly meld with East and West, skylines and dragons, myth and reality, old and new.

Another place we see a near overly Western influence comes with some of the items dotting the landscape in the film. A New Orleans-style paddle-boat brings weary spirit guests to the bathhouse a one-way San Francisco-style trolley car rolls along the stops of the spirit world. These things are almost never seen in Japan outside of theme restaurants and in pictures from the United States. What are they doing playing background image to a traditional bathhouse?

The interpersonal relationships of the film are another mark of Westernization. It is not just Chihiro’s pessimistic and disrespectful attitude but also her forwardness with other authority figures. Her parents are near oblivious to their daughter’s needs and shoo her needs away and her growing concerns about entering the terrifying abandoned amusement park. Her parents are not as attentive as we are accustomed to seeing Japanese parents especially ones that have a young daughter.  We are quick to shove that to the side and assume it is a plot device; if they had listened to her more intently the plot would have never moved forward. Yubaba’s relationship with her foremen and workers is more like that of a factory owner than the traditional respect of an Eastern bathhouse.

Another key fact that gets the plot moving is Chihiro’s family moving, this is actually fairly uncommon even in modern Japan where jobs are very stable and families have not moved from prefecture to prefecture in years even if they do work in the more industrial regions of the country like the Aichi prefecture where there is a great deal of auto manufacturing. The behavior of the characters cannot be simply chalked up to devices of the plot of slaves to moving the story along, there is a deeper Western influence within that perhaps served the purpose of making them more relatable to a growing American audience.

Now, the film has plenty of traditional elements to it. The idea of a bathhouse for the spirits and Yubaba’s odd concern with respect and maintaining her guests’ happiness. The closeness to the spirits is one that is only seen in the US in regions like New Orleans where voodoo is practiced and there is a closeness and concern for the dead there; that is the only other place outside of Eastern myth that I have found the living and the dead communing so casually together. The theme and concern with mythology is one that is uniquely Eastern. Also the great interjection of mythological characters and creatures of folklore that have survived for thousands of years in Japan like the dragon and water spirits, river spirits, demons and monsters that seem to encompass the landscape of the film.

Spirited Away was as Miyazaki-senpai said his “return to Japan”, the film’s exotic setting, mythical creatures and whimsical spirit was very unique and unlike the average film to the average American movie-goer. What did tie the film back to Japan was something Miyazaki does consistently throughout many of his films and it is doing his best to when he can preserve Japanese culture and the dying way of life that is the traditional Japanese way, in a way the Bushido code provided the guidance for the samurai up until the early Meiji with its brief resurgence during World War II, Miyazaki strives to bring that time back, to a simpler time where man lived and respected nature, and therefore respected others. Where myth and legend lived not just on paper but in the hearts of the people. Where honor was key and the most important thing to a person and not money or socioeconomic status.

These more traditional aspects come from another key scene and that is the stink spirit. We come to find that it is not a stink spirit at all but an old river spirit but due to neglect and pollution he has become gross and dirty. It takes outside help from Chihiro and the other workers at the bathhouse to clean him up and discover his true nature, a clean and healthy river he is grateful and leaves powerful medicine behind. This story is one that we see more commonly in the West but we are beginning to see in Japan as the Japanese become suddenly very concerned with preserving their rich natural habitats and local rivers and streams that were the lifeblood of the ancient Japanese and became neglected shortly after industrialization and pollution came to Japan.

The other key place is within Haku. He is one of the only characters to maintain traditional dress and for the most part formalities and respect for others including authority figures. Despite him being a mythical creature his story is also fairly similar to other Japanese stories. River spirits often communicate with humans and form close bonds with mortals, that being the reason why so many rivers in Japan have human names, they were thought to have real human embodiment that could feel and move just like humans could. Haku’s relationship with Chihiro then isn’t just to be chalked to do plot device, this is something that was seen as rather conventional if this story was being told hundreds of years ago in Japan.

Music and dance are other key places where we see the traditional creep back in, the soundtrack to the film is filled with traditional instruments like the samisen and koto, instruments used most commonly by geisha or Shinto priestesses. Also the various fan dances that happen throughout the film, though this even could be considered more a gesture in some instances. Fans are a highly traditional part of Eastern culture including Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Depending on the occasion they can symbolize elegance and grace or signal death and doom depending on the usage and occasion.

Amid criticism that Disney’s influence had been negative on his films, Miyazaki assured his fans that he worked very closely with translators and made sure they did their best to maintain the integrity of his works. This poses the question further. If it wasn’t Disney’s fault, why are these films so filled with Western ideals and images? It would be easy to just blame Studio Ghibli’s partnership with Disney on the Westernization and say this is just what Disney does to these things but since Miyazaki signs off on each film personally that means he either add these things intentionally or he still isn’t quite catching them before the film’s premiere.

Perhaps it is to widen his audience, for many years Miyazaki’s films had only been known to those who could fluently speak Japanese and had subject matter that was odd to the average American including pigs in WWII Italian planes and a secret society of talking cats. These films geared at young adults were highly sociopolitical with references that not many understood. It was not until some of his middle works like KiKi’s Delivery Service and Nausicaa of the Wind Valley that his works became more easily digestible to American audiences and as American audiences asked for more the more Western the films became and the easier it was to relate to the characters and story lines but at what costs? The end result for a while became a film that began in Japan and that at times was in Japanese but was basically the same as any other American cartoon.

In the end Spirited Away may have been Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled return to Japan and to the untrained eye, it’s easy to get swept up in the exotic location, mysterious plot, mythological creatures and intriguing yet relatable characters. But upon closer inspection one sees that this film is far more influence by the polarizing world around Miyazaki-senpai. One that does not know when to be old or new, when myth and legend are appropriate or when they need to be pushed to the side where contrast isn’t just a comment on the inside of a travel brochure it is a legitimate concern. When fans are concerned about the Japan in the texts books fading away forever as the new building encase old pagodas, where will the films be when the battle is decided as East becomes a growing part of the West.


Works Cited

Napier, Susan. “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.” Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2 (2006): 287-310. EBSCOhost. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <blume.stmarytx.edu/ehost/detai…>.

“Westernization of Japan – International Business – a Wikia Wiki.” International Business Wiki. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <internationalbusiness.wikia.co…>.