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Beauty and the Beast Romances Through Manga History

by Rebecca Silverman,

There's no nicer misunderstanding than our typical interpretation of AT425c, the fairy tale generally known as Beauty and the Beast. The idea that the story is about a good woman seeing the kind heart beneath a man's gruff exterior (“beauty is found within”) mostly comes from the 1991 Disney film of the same name, but the way we understand the tale is probably rooted in the fact that for many people, arranged marriages are a thing of the past, especially where the bride is a young teenage girl possibly raised in a convent and her groom-to-be is a man in his mid-thirties or older. Add to this the idea that the girl may very well be being sold into marriage, either symbolically as a way for her family to gain or solidify their hold on power or as an actual payment for financial debt, and the story begins to take on a much different tone. As folklorist Maria Tatar points out, the story of Beauty and the Beast is much more likely to be a way to make a nervous young bride feel better about her impending nuptials. (And if you were a sheltered 18th-century maiden, the first time you saw a naked man, might he not look like a beast to you?)

Although the tale type can be found all over the world, the best known version is probably Madame LePrince de Beaumont's 1757 iteration. She based her retelling on the 1740 variant by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, although scholars generally trace the earliest written version to Lucius Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche. All three of these stories share a base plot of a young woman forced to marry a man she doesn't know; in the case of the two French stories, the girl is sold to repay her father's debts. This places her in a position where she has much less power than her husband, something that women have had to deal with for centuries and that Villeneuve and Beaumont likely were trying to help their readers cope with. While these base concepts don't always hold up in modern reworkings of the story, anime and manga have been strangely faithful to them – whether the girl is sold into slavery (The Ancient Magus' Bride), had her debts paid by a man who expects her to marry him as a result (Happy Marriage!?), or is simply preyed upon by a man who is in a position of power over them (Ten Count), the idea of a power-imbalance within a romantic relationship is anything but uncommon.

The best known at this particular moment is no doubt Kore Yamazaki's The Ancient Magus' Bride. In this story Chise, the heroine, is bought at a slave auction by Elias Ainsworth, the eponymous ancient magus. Chise is to be his apprentice (and bride) because of her unusual innate magical talents as a sleigh beggy, a being who continually generates magical power in exchange for a drastically shortened lifespan. What's particularly interesting about Yamazaki's interpretation of the tale here is that both Chise and Elias share the duties of Beauty and Beast: Elias buys Chise, casting them in the traditional roles, but then those roles reverse with the fact that Elias must find the power to transform Chise's shortened life into one more like his own. This is essentially the same quest that Beauty must perform in most versions of the original tale – find a way to save the dying beast and turn him back into a human. Despite Yamazaki infusing the series with British and Celtic folklore, she still relies much more heavily on the French versions than the English variant The Short-Toothed Dog, from the buying of the bride to Chise learning to see Elias as more than just the beast who purchased and keeps her. The mechanics of the story also allow Chise much more freedom to grow as a person than some of the less tasteful retellings – despite the fact that she's undeniably involved in a relationship with a man who literally owns her (despite being offered her freedom at one point, lending credence to the modern theory that AT425c trades in Stockholm Syndrome), she is also learning how to utilize her powers and to grow into a much more confident human being. By having Chise sell herself into slavery initially, and thus cutting out the father who “owns” Beauty previous to handing her over to her husband, Yamazaki has already set the stage for a much more empowered heroine. On the other hand, she still initially gives up control of her own life, which is arguably a step backwards and feeds into the tale type's notion that a woman must be under male control in order to be her best self. In 1747, that wasn't considered an injurious position to take; a manga first published in 2013 and animated in 2017 has less of a leg to stand on.

Perhaps that's why other more traditional variants either transport their heroine to the past or set the story there. One of the best examples of this is Mi-Kyung Yun's Bride of the Water God, which takes place during an unspecified time in Korea's past. The initial story is a combination of both traditional Beauty and the Beast stories and human sacrifice tales: when rain has failed to fall on her village, So-ah is offered up as a “bride” to the water god, Habaek. “Bride,” in this case, is code for “sacrifice;” no one in the village actually expects So-ah to survive. That's what makes it all the more disturbing when we find out that her father sold her into the position – originally a different girl was supposed to be the sacrificial bride. So-ah's troubles being manipulated do not end with the discovery that she's actually going to be Habaek's wife, however: like the Beast in the tales, Habaek is under a transformative curse, placed on him by his first wife. Rather than turn into a monster (although there's an argument to be made that that would be redundant in at least early volumes of this 2006 manga), he becomes a child during the day. This only exacerbates his cruel nature, and leaves So-ah open to manipulation by the other gods, who hope to use her for their own ends. Thus So-ah spends the early part of the series being kidnapped by various gods, continually at their mercy until she is able to take some semblance of charge of her own life. That she does eventually become Habaek's true bride (and her daughter becomes a player in the latter half of the series) is in keeping with the tale type, and while the story makes a show of So-ah becoming stronger (and she does come a ways from where she begins as a character), the story is ultimately a very traditional version of AT425c.

That remains to be seen about Rei Tōma's similarly titled The Water Dragon's Bride, which is currently ongoing. Also combining Beauty and the Beast with a sacrifice narrative, Tōma's story transports heroine Asahi to a version of Japan's pre-Heian past. When the strange child shows up near their village, the people decide that the best thing to do is to offer her up to the Water Dragon as their regular sacrifice – after all, that means that none of their children will have to die. Tōma is much less subtle than Yun about the fact that the “bride” really is being sentenced to death: in volume one, we see the chained skeletons of previous girls given to the god. Asahi, however, is lucky – she captures the interest of the normally closed-off Water Dragon. He takes her in but almost immediately tires of her questions and cries, leading him to rob her of her voice. Readers may note that this in the immediate has more similarities with Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 literary fairy tale (one made up by the author, not retold from folklore) The Little Mermaid, but it also is in keeping with the idea of the arranged marriage: one of the things that the girl bride must accept is that her husband is in charge. While this is less evident in most of the more commonly known variants, it's very obvious in the Italian Zelinda and the Monster and the Greek The Snake-Prince, where the Beast figure continually threatens his bride. Although Asahi is later rescued from the Water Dragon by Subaru, the village boy who initially found her, the Water Dragon pursues her to the human world, and by volume three there is some question of whether or not she is truly his bride – and what that means for Asahi and Subaru's relationship. Although rarely, if ever, brought up in the actual tales, Tōma's version does bring up the question of what would happen if the bride fell in love with someone not her husband, a motif more common to Bluebeard or The Robber Bridegroom stories, where the bride escapes from her cruel groom. Since Tōma's manga is currently ongoing, we don't yet know if it will become one of those other two tale types, but it's a transformation that will be worth keeping an eye out for.

As you may have noticed, sacrifice to the water gods is a strangely pervasive form for manga with AT425c themes to use as a structural base. A third published in English is Wann's Give to the Heart, which, like Bride of the Water God and The Water Dragon God, takes place in a time and place other than our own. Just where and when that is is a major reveal in the story, but suffice it to say that there's a dystopian feel to Wann's version of the tale. Although the series starts in medias res with heroine Sooyi on the run from her Beast, a water god named Ganok, flashbacks reveal that she, like Chise, deliberately put herself in the Beast's power. But where Chise sold her freedom and simply ended up with Elias, Sooyi took herself to Ganok's palace as a gift to him in hopes that he would stop punishing her village. Ganok is one of the most human Beasts in terms of his appearance, and there's definitely a reason for that which is revealed as the series goes on. Unlike Habaek, he isn't even under an appearance-changing curse; his beastliness is entirely on the inside. Ganok makes no bones about the fact that, because of Sooyi's beauty, she will be his wife in more than name only, and their romance is tumultuous at best as she resists him while he falls in love with her. Sooyi is among the least passive of the Beauty figures in these stories, acting more like the heroine of the Norwegian variant East of the Sun, West of the Moon, who takes a much more proactive role in her story. That heroine rescues her prince, which is to a degree what Sooyi ends up doing when she flees from Ganok – while simultaneously showing him that she is not his puppet to be controlled, she makes him understand his (and her) vulnerability. During this time she falls in with a much more dangerous Beast, Niroo, who is seeking to become the next (or true) hero of the story. The comparison between Niroo and Ganok, both of whom desperately want Sooyi, does give this particular story more in common with the basic romance narrative, but it also works to point out that the central conceit of the original Beauty and the Beast story holds true: the Beast Beauty was initially given to in marriage is not nearly as monstrous as he at first appears. With the underlying theme of sacrifice to appease a god, this is particularly striking in a way that “listen to your father” might not be – Sooyi ultimately belongs to her Beast husband, no matter how much she may resent that at times…because at the end of the story, she knows that he's not so bad.

That's another theme that surfaces in some of the darker manga versions of the stories, and Seyoung Kim's Sweet Blood takes the idea and puts it in a vampire tale. Like Ganok, vampire Beast Kiahn looks very nearly human, making the Beast qualities interior. Beauty this time is Sooho, a young man kidnapped (rescued?) from starvation by Kiahn because of his immensely powerful blood. While there is a romance plot to this series, there's much more focus on the vicious aspects of Kiahn and Sooho's relationship as Kiahn fights his growing feelings for Sooho and other Beasts come to try and make use of Sooho. Although themes of lost royalty do pervade the story, Kim is more interested in showing us a variety of Beasts in their different beautiful disguises as they fight over Beauty. Going back to the early interpretations of the tale, this is perhaps what a wealthy or noble girl would have faced as her father considered suitors for her hand – she knew she was going to be sold to some kind of monster, but not which specific one she would end up tied to. Even if Sooho and Kiahn manage to form mutual feelings for each other, there's no guarantee that he's Beauty's Beast in the end. It's a much less comforting story of forced marriage than many of the others, as even Give to the Heart with its twisted love story still manages to give some assurance throughout that things will work out for the lead couple. That Kiahn is a vampire who is quite literally preying on his partner adds to his Beastly aspects, creating a parallel between a girl given in marriage to a man interested in her dowry rather than in her as a person. It's the fact that Kiahn is able to begin to see Sooho as a person rather than simply what he gets from the relationship is what moves this story into AT425c territory, because without that romance aspect to the tale, it's simply something much more disturbing.

Not that many of these stories don't have disturbing aspects; in fact, the earliest variants of Beauty and the Beast are quite upsetting if you take off your Disney-colored glasses, because all of them do still involve a daughter given by her father to an apparent monster. Sometimes, however, the monster seeks the girl out. In East of the Sun, West of the Moon that works out, but more stories are in line with Kanoko Sakurakoji's romance series Black Bird. Misao is a sixteen-year-old high school student when she meets Kyo Usui for the second time – he was her neighbor when they were children. But little does Misao know, Kyo is actually the leader of a clan of tengu, and Misao herself is the “Senka Maiden,” the woman whose special physical makeup has marked her out as the bride of the most powerful demon leader – a position enabled by the possession of Misao herself. Kyo wants Misao, admittedly not just because she's the Senka Maiden, but that certainly is part of her appeal, and to that end he pursues her relentlessly. While some readers may see this as romantic, when examined through the lens of AT425c, it becomes apparent that Kyo has merely skipped the whole “threatening the father” portion of the tale and has simply gone after Beauty himself. This may at first seem slightly more progressive, because it does to a degree acknowledge that Misao is not her father's property. Unfortunately for romantics, the series goes on to make it clear that Kyo wants to mark Misao as his by having sex with her, a backwards notion that the man who “claims” a girl's virginity is her lord and master. Since much of the Senka Maiden's in-world lore is wrapped up in her ability to bear a powerful child (at the expense of her own life), this can be read as Kyo insuring not just ownership of Misao herself, but also of any child she might have. Although few Beauty and the Beast stories go this far, generally still ending at “happily ever after,” Sakurakoji's use of masculine ownership of female sexuality plays right into the tale type's themes, particularly since the arranged marriages of the past were generally expected to produce male heirs to fully seal the contract. Black Bird also plays to themes of Stockholm Syndrome many modern readers diagnose Beauty with, implying that she comes to Love & Beast simply because he is her only meaningful human(ish) interaction. In the case of Misao and Kyo, while he doesn't (for the most part) actually keep her captive, she is still very much under his power – not only is he a beast, he's also older than her and in a position of power over her in a different way: he's posing as her teacher at school. All in all this is much more in keeping with Sweet Blood than The Ancient Magus' Bride, and it's interesting to think about how Chise is, despite her status as actual property, more in charge of her life and destiny than Misao, who isn't even married to her Beast when he asserts ownership. Misao's is among the most disturbing of Beauty and the Beast renditions in manga, although in some ways, it may also be the most faithful in looking into the story's darker origins.

All of the titles we've discussed thus far have had a supernatural element to them, but that's certainly not always the case – as we've seen in Black Bird and Give to the Heart, the Beast can at times take on a distinctly human form. Texts by scholars such as Janice Radway and Tania Modleski have noted that the contemporary romance novel has many ties to Beauty and the Beast, and that the folktale may have given rise to romance fiction and many of its tropes in general. (Cinderella is cited as the other major influence.) To that end, we see a variety of “regular” romances that are really AT425c in thin disguise, with one of the more well-known being Yōko Kamio's Hana Yori Dango, or Boys Over Flowers. While this story also has plenty of Cinderella aspects, especially given the socio-economic disparity between the romantic leads, it's difficult to argue that Tsukasa Doumiyoji is anything but a Beast. He's abusive to not only Tsukushi, the Beauty of the story, but also to his friends, peers, and random strangers, taking his wealth and status as an excuse to do whatever he pleases to whomever. Arguably this is because he has been metaphorically cursed by his parents – his upbringing was devoid of love and his family expects him to jump when they say he should. That this includes marrying the woman they pick out for him creates the interesting possibility that Doumiyoji encompasses both Beast and Beauty in the story, although Tsukushi's role as the woman who eventually “tames” the Beast and grows to love him despite everything negates that to a degree. That their romance is so marked by Doujiyoji's cruelty to Tsukushi (the fact that he usually backs down just a little too late does not make him a whole lot better) speaks to the idea of the Beast having been cursed because of his Beastly nature, which is more in keeping with later interpretations of the tale. But elements from an older vision of the story do persist: Doumiyoji uses his wealth and social status to remind Tsukushi that he is above her and that he can manipulate her world. Like the Beast in the tales, he threatens her father's life (or livelihood) and tries to buy Tsukushi with his apparent generosity. The fact that this is painted as romantic is par for the course for the later visions of AT425c, and there's never really any doubt that Tsukushi will ultimately end up with her Beast, despite kinder options being available. Kamio's long-running series nicely plays with both visions of the tale type, combining them in a way that is commonly seen in western bodice rippers – the conflation of “abusive” with “strong.”

Maki Enjōji's josei romance manga Happy Marriage!? also plays with both sides of this story. Chiwa is literally sold into marriage with her boss Hokuto as a payment for her family's debts, which is a textbook beginning to the tale type. Like Doumiyoji and Ganok, he's physically gorgeous, but that only serves to conceal his inner Beast. Hokuto is very clear throughout the early volumes of the story that he has paid for Chiwa's life, and although the two do make more attempts to smooth things over than in many other AT425c-based romances, he's still undeniably awful to her. (For an interesting refutation of this trope, see Moira J. Moore's novella The CEO Can Drop Dead.) In fact, Hokuto seems to go out of his way to make Chiwa uncomfortable through his various actions, and his jealousy when she interacts with male friends and colleagues (after an insistence that their marriage be kept secret at work) treads a dangerously possessive line. In Hokuto's mind, Chiwa is bought and paid for; she's therefore his property. Although Chiwa, like Tsukushi, Sooyi, and So-ah, does resist his heavy hand, she also eventually falls for him. It is at this point that we discover the tragic, tormented past that made Hokuto into the Beast he currently is – again, a variation on the theme of having been cursed by a woman that we see in most of the other titles discussed. Like Doumiyoji, Hokuto's curse is familial, and we're meant to understand that his Beast status is entirely due to a lack of Beauty in his life. Once that is remedied, Hokuto is allowed to be redeemed, because if a woman can only be her best self when “owned” by the right man, he can only be his when tempered by the right woman, a theme which even The Ancient Magus' Bride, one of the least objectionable reworkings of the tale, buys into.

Not that gender itself is non-negotiable in a Beauty and the Beast story, as we've already seen in Sweet Blood. There do tend to be more heteronormative romances that follow the pattern, but that's more of an indication of pre-existing romance norms and the tale's early intentions than anything settled about later interpretations of the tale type. There are definitely arguments to be made for Saburota's Citrus and Rihito Takarai's Ten Count as additions to this catalogue, and in fact Ten Count's use of psychological manipulation involving patient Shirotani's transference and childhood traumas make for an interesting shift in the usual “wealth” dynamic. Whoever the characters may be, though, the lingering cultural norms of the mid-18th century still flavor each reworking of AT425c, creating stories that can be less comfortable for 21st century readers. We may not like that Chise is Elias' property or that Tsukushi ends up with Doumiyoji, but if we can understand where those tropes come from, it may at least make things make a little more sense, and it becomes possible to see that, like Disney's version tells us, the beauty of the story is found within.

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