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Director Mamoru Hosoda may be one of the unsung heroes of animation in the past decade and change, especially when it comes to the wide realm of Japanese animation. Since his breakout hit with ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’ in 2006, Hosoda has put out a feature film every three years without fail, all of them of remarkably consistent quality. In 2019, when the Academy Awards announced nominees for Best Animated Feature, Hosoda’s ‘Mirai’ became the first Oscar-nominated anime feature not made by Studio Ghibli. Now with his latest film, ‘Belle’, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021 to much applause, Hosoda paints on the widest canvas he can manage, giving us a true epic for the digital age. Don’t worry about the film’s message, though; this is not a pessimistic tale about the evils of the internet, but rather about how the internet has the capacity to bring disparate people together, all while showing off an online world that is as welcoming as it is visually dazzling.
The film is directed and written by Mamoru Hosoda, with the story inspired by the classic French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. ‘Belle’ was animated by Studio Chizu, which has been Hosoda’s base of operations since ‘Wolf Children’ in 2012.
Belle and U
Despite its sizable scale, not to mention being Hosoda’s longest movie at just over two hours in duration, the plot focuses on a single character: Suzu. A high school student with few social prospects, Suzu starts out as someone clearly haunted by a certain past trauma that affects every aspect of her life, from her relationship with her father to her life at school. Her two closest friends are Shinobu, a nice boy whom Suzu has a maybe one-sided (but maybe not) crush on, and Hiroka, a computer wizard who tries valiantly to lure Suzu out of her shell. The first act of ‘Belle’ is this laid-back but deeply melancholic slice of life that grounds us in reality before we’re thrown into the heightened digital splendor of what’s to come later.
Eventually, Hiroka convinces Suzu to create an account for U, a virtual space not too dissimilar from VRChat, except it apparently has users that number in the billions, even outnumbering a real-life titan like Facebook; how this fictitious platform could contain presumably more than half the world’s population does invoke some suspension of disbelief, but it’s a quibble. When creating her avatar for U, Suzu accidentally takes the likeness of a fellow (popular) classmate and U gives her an avatar that does not physically resemble her in the slightest. At first, Suzu sees the mixup as a mistake, but she then realizes that traversing U with a totally fabricated identity could prove to be an asset. Suzu, a poor girl suffering from low self-esteem, can quite feasibly reinvent herself in this brave new world where nobody will know her true identity.
The difference between Suzu in the real world and Suzu as Belle, her avatar, is like night and day. In the real world, done in traditional 2D animation, Suzu is a shy girl who struggles to express her talents, namely her talent as a singer, but in the 3D world of U, she takes advantage of her newfound anonymity by becoming a virtual pop star. Unlike another recent anime film with 3D animation, ‘Earwig and the Witch’, where the movement is intentionally jittery, the aesthetic of U is silky smooth, the vast 3D landscape sharing the lushness of the real world’s 2D drawings while remaining decidedly its own beast. Hosoda also seemed to create U as a good excuse for playing with wildly different character designs, the hundreds of on-screen avatars coming in all shapes and sizes — many of them not necessarily humanoid in form.
Belle and the Beast
Once Suzu dives deep into U, the film becomes something of a musical. As said earlier, Belle is a virtual pop star whose performances score her millions of hits, as well as admirers and detractors. The music itself is excellent, ranging from epic bombast to spaced-out vocal pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Adele record. Kaho Nakanuma and Kylie McNeill, who voice Suzu/Belle in the Japanese and English versions respectively, also perform their own songs — a pretty admirable feat. Actors don’t always do their own singing when it comes to musicals, with controversial results, and with English dubs for anime, it’s not always the case that a song sung (or rapped) in Japanese is then re-recorded in English. Thankfully, for a movie where vocal performances are so prominent, the pop songs of ‘Belle’ translate beautifully into English.
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Not all is well for Belle, though; before long she is harassed by a fellow user, someone whose avatar appears to be half-man and half-dragon. Rather creatively, the unknown assailant is referred to as the Dragon. Yet despite interrupting Belle’s performances and generally causing a huge ruckus in U, Belle finds herself drawn to the Dragon, whoever the Dragon is — and the Dragon could be just about anybody. As Suzu uses anonymity to her advantage, so does the Dragon’s user — just with different goals in mind. But what goals? Who is the person hiding behind this brawny and violent persona? What does he, she, or they want? The external conflict of the movie, as opposed to Suzu’s own internal conflict with her self-esteem, revolves around the strange and growing relationship between U’s biggest singer and U’s biggest outlaw. Belle and the Dragon are two sides of a single coin, and without spoiling anything, I will say that their relationship is enticingly ambiguous, sincerely heartfelt, and perhaps even a bit revolutionary for a movie with this particular subject matter.
Now, the elephant in the room when it comes to reviewing ‘Belle’ (as several review headlines will tell us) is that it takes some conspicuous cues from Disney’s animated rendition of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, a superb film in its own right. Belle, of course, shares her name with that story’s leading lady, and then there’s also the deal with the Dragon being a stand-in for the Beast, complete with an endearing hot-cold personality. There is also a scene that is ripped more or less straight from the classic Disney film, although I won’t go into details about it; you’ll know it when you see it. The point I want to make is that Hosoda effectively recontextualizes this framework so that it becomes about the redemptive power of love in an age where practically anyone on the face of the planet can connect with someone thousands of miles away. In a movie with well over a dozen supporting characters, plus two levels of action with distinctly separate art styles, the central relationship is what keeps ‘Belle’ afloat.
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Belle and the Rest of Us
I wouldn’t call ‘Belle’ a perfect movie. In his efforts to tell a story about a near-endless online community, tackling some heavy themes along the way, Mamoru Hosoda may have reached farther than his grasp; for an animated feature, it is also quite long. Yet at the same time, I find it hard to fault the movie purely on its ambition, which is both infectious and optimistic. With two decades of experience under his belt, Hosoda has reached what is perhaps the peak of a recurring thesis of his, earlier shown in 2009’s ‘Summer Wars’ — that the internet can be a profound force for good in the world.
In an interview with Vulture, Hosoda was asked about the threat of bullying and generally toxic behavior online, and his response was curious. “I think it is hard,” he said, “but I want young people to not feel defeated by cyberbullying and trolling and to keep on expressing themselves and finding the strength to change themselves and society,” thus explaining the creation of Belle, Suzu’s other half. Whereas some people grow more resentful towards the younger generation as they age, Hosoda has become more empathetic if anything. Not to say that there was a point in his career where Hosoda loathed his child characters, considering ‘Digimon: The Movie’ (yes, Hosoda directed portions of ‘Digimon: The Movie’) way back in 2000 gave us a cast of child protagonists, but these youths have only become more dexterous and humanely characterized over time. Given Hosoda’s maturity in recent years, it makes sense that ‘Mirai’, the little Oscar-nominated film from 2018, devotes all its time to a young boy’s relationship with his baby sister.
The highest point of praise that I can give to ‘Belle’, aside from its accomplishments purely as animation, is that it dares to be hopeful in an area where most other movies would be pessimistic. Given that the internet has only become more ubiquitous since ‘Summer Wars’, and that it will no doubt continue to become more a part of our lives with each passing year, we do need a movie like ‘Belle’ — a movie that gives us hope for a future that is constantly in flux.
‘Belle’ was picked up by GKIDS for localization; it is playing in select theaters, in both Japanese and English, as of January 2022.
CAST: Japanese: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Sato, Lila Ikuta, Ryō Narita. English: Kylie McNeill, Paul Castro Jr., Jessica DiCicco, Manny Jacinto
CREW: Director: Mamoru Hosoda, Writer: Mamoru Hosoda, Editor: Shigeru Nishiyama, Producers: Nozumo Takahashi, Yuichiro Saito, Toshimi Tanio, Genki Kawamura
By Brian Collins
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