The latest film by Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda, Belle (OV: Ryû to Sobakasu no Hime) is a sci-fi fantasy anime that premiered in this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The film focuses on teenager Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), who has become an awkward loner after the accidental death of her mother. She is disconnected from her father, constantly compares herself to popular girl Ruka (Tina Tamashiro), and is – in the words of her hacker best friend Hiro (Lilas Ikuta) – a crybaby. Unable to sing after losing her mother, Suzu impulsively joins U, a virtual world that allows users to biometrically ‘become someone else’. She regains her voice as Belle, a freckled pink-haired beauty whose initial performance makes her a viral sensation and she is inspired to perform online more often. However, the presence of a rogue avatar known as ‘The Dragon’ captures Suzu’s attention, and she takes it upon herself to find out more about their real identity.
Comprising two halves, the film is divided between the conventional story of the insecure protagonist’s journey of self-discovery and one that is inspired by the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. In the real world, the shy Suzu joins U to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the school and revels in the ability to sing again. However, both positive and negative online comments about Belle rouses Suzu’s self-insecurity, resulting in emotional outbursts and a somewhat rocky road to inner confidence. Belle’s narrative is relatively straightforward in comparison, where the beautiful and compassionate heroine trying to help a flawed anti-hero as they evade an online vigilante group led by Justian (Toshiyuki Morikawa).
Although both characters have different journeys, elements from both narratives play into Belle‘s theme of escapism and internet anonymity. The idea of being someone else and hiding your identity has always been a common trope in cinema, as it offers a fundamentally basic premise. Therefore, it is highly effective in Hosoda’s latest film – one way or another, everyone is keeping a secret and due to the vast accessibility of an online virtual world, it is only a matter of time before something is made public. This not only enables Suzu’s angst and various school crushes to amusingly evoke the odd bout of blushing and (hysterical) hysteria, but also allows Hosoda to add a darker side to online anonymity via the power-hungry Justian, who uses rules to justify his ability to forcibly ‘unveil’ user identities and threaten individual privacy – with the Dragon as his primary target. This ultimately causes both plot lines to blend into each other, inspiring Suzu to find her voice and help those in need.
A collaboration between Studio Chizo, Disney animator Jin Kim, and Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, Belle combines simple yet classic graphics with breathtaking 3D animation. Unsurprisingly, there are some flashes of Disney’s animated classic but it is easy to forgive these when the incredibly detailed world of U comes to life, offering a place where people can simply escape from the seemingly humdrum (and rather unembellished) visuals of real life. Coupled with an infectiously catchy J-pop soundtrack and the floods of sporadic online comments from worldwide users, Hosoda reinforces the idealistic, dream-like setting of the internet within a compelling take on a classic fairy tale.
Intricately animated and brilliantly told, Belle is a gorgeous spectacle of an animated feature – after only three years after the Oscar-nominated Mirai, Hosoda delivers his most beautiful film to date.
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Stars: Kaho Nakamura, Ryô Narita, Shôta Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Lilas Ikuta, Kôji Yakusho, Takeru Satoh
Runtime: 122 minutes