Mamoru Hosoda’s filmography varies in terms of quality, but his themes remain consistent. How parents connect with their children – how siblings relate to each other – how young people navigate their relationships – and, of course, another world just beyond our own, from the fantasy of the titular Wolf Children, to the time-defying moral quandaries for the young protagonist of Mirai, and the hidden entrance to the world of The Boy and the Beast. His latest offering is true to thematic form, and while it feels like a slight dip in quality from his previous film, Hosoda clearly has something important to say.
17-year-old Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is struggling with the traumatic memory of her mother’s death a decade ago. She retains fond childhood memories of making music, but now any attempt to sing triggers a panic attack. One day, Suzu decides to join five billion others in the virtual world of “U,” where AI creates your perfect avatar, and you can reach your true potential anonymously. Going by the name ‘Bell’ (and soon dubbed ‘Belle’ by other users), Suzu quickly becomes a celebrity, renowned for her avatar’s beauty and talent. Here, she can sing without fear. However, an enigmatic user called ‘Dragon’ (Takeru Satoh) soon appears, and Suzu is drawn into the mystery that surrounds him.
Belle is the painfully streamlined version of the Japanese title: The Dragon and the Freckled Princess. The film retells Beauty and the Beast, but only within “U;” the real-world narrative is separate. Suzu’s attempts to get to know Dragon, and their tentative relationship, directly parallel the fairy tale, while one or two scenes play out like re-enactments of moments from the 1991 film. (Interestingly, Korean Disney animator Jin Kim worked on Belle.) To set this version apart, though, Hosoda has opted for a relationship that, while deeply emotional, is decidedly platonic. We are presented with two people leaning on each other, and working through separate trauma. Most (if not all) of the emotional labour is on Suzu’s shoulders, while Dragon has the more pragmatic, physical role. It is a shame that their duties have been apparently gendered this way, though it does make a little more sense in the end, as Hosoda allows space for their roles to grow and change.
Suzu herself is a charismatic, sympathetic protagonist. Her struggle with PTSD is treated with great care and elasticity in Hosoda’s script – from the hilarious embarrassment she faces being forced to sing karaoke (she flees), to the attempt to sing alone that causes her stomach to revolt. Her anxieties are real and relatable. Sometimes it does seem ridiculous that anxiety prevents us from doing things we should find easy. Other times, it is devastating. We see Suzu suffer in awkward silence, and then burst in a flail of frustrated limbs as she pours out her heart to Hiroka (Ikura), one of her closest friends. It makes sense that, in “U,” Suzu not only regains her voice, but also becomes someone who is not held back by trauma, who can challenge herself and others, and protect those in need.
Of course, music plays a huge role in Belle. In fact, it would not be a stretch to consider this a musical. While people do sing in the real world, it is usually reserved for specific, realistic moments. In “U,” Belle is a celebrated singer who frequently sells out concerts, and a song is at the centre of the film’s emotional climax. However, with one foot in each of these worlds, Suzu finds the line blurred, and in one scene makes her way along the river, softly singing a cappella. Songs set the scene, flesh out the plot, and develop the characters: everything a good musical should do. Taisei Iwasaki, Ludvig Forsell, and Yuta Bandoh worked as composers on the film, and from the opening number – the marching-band drumbeat, brass, and marimba perfectly complement Nakamura’s vocals – the music is strong and rousing.
Along with the music, the visuals are striking. The creative team – Nobutaka Ike’s art direction; visual effects from Hiroyuki Aoyama and Takaaki Yamashita; and Jumi Lee, Kei Machida and Manabu Kadouno’s cinematography – captures two strikingly different worlds with equal care. Like an idol anime, when users move into “U” from the real world, we shift from 2D to 3D. The change is a little jarring at first, and the 3D models struggle to feel as smooth as the 2D ones, but the decision makes sense. “U” is CG because we are, essentially, in a computer. Additionally, users can appear human, like Suzu, but more often they are hybrids or fully animal (real or fantastical). As such, the use of 3D heightens the sense of unreality. The real-world scenes are grounded, anchored by Hosoda’s great understanding of framing and ‘camerawork.’ Meanwhile, the colourful, vibrant, busy virtual world seems fascinating and frightening in equal measure.
It is this fear that is exploited in Belle. Beyond the real-world horrors – besides the loss of a parent and PTSD, the film also deals with child abuse – Hosoda seems very interested in the role social media plays in our lives. Alongside countless others, Suzu finds her voice in “U,” but we also see a darker side: how her overnight success goes hand-in-hand with hate comments; how Hiroka and Suzu, in their desperation to uncover Dragon’s identity, practically dox other users; and how Suzu’s mother becomes the target of trolls, who declare her death ‘selfish’. Most perceptive, perhaps, is the inclusion of a vigilante group in “U,” led by the blustering Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa). A blond-haired, blue-eyed Gaston proxy, he spearheads the attack on Dragon, and threatens to strip users of their anonymity in a display of psychological torture. Not only do we have this fascistic law enforcement group in “U,” we also see the lack of power held (or at least exercised) by police in the real world, who at a crucial moment in the film, refuse to help. In both cases, normal people must pull together and fight back – and in both worlds, we see that they do.
While the message is strong, the method does stumble. If we separate “U” from the real world, it is the latter that feels more compelling; the best scenes (save perhaps one) take place here, and Hosoda’s handling of these teenagers’ relationships is sensitive, perceptive and, at times, very funny. The parts of the story that take place in “U” are not weaker by any means, but we can argue that Hosoda’s consistent desire to explore two separate but connected worlds gets in the way here. Belle also covers some very dark themes, and when the main conflict is finally revealed, the resolution can easily be picked apart in hindsight. There are two narratives here: one about a girl struggling with grief, and navigating her adolescence; and one about a manhunt, played out over social media. Unfortunately, these narratives struggle to coalesce. However, thanks to the strength of the characters and the direction, scenes and plot reveals that feel messy both in the moment and in retrospect, do for the most part carry weight. Perhaps that is down to the genre: musicals accomplish many things that audiences might not otherwise accept.
Belle is a visual and aural treat and, thanks to a charismatic cast of characters, it is also at times deeply emotional and painfully funny. Hosoda perfectly captures a group of teenagers awkwardly navigating friendship and romance. In fact, these scenes are so strong, that a film following these characters’ lives in the real world without the social media angle would have been a real treat. However, despite the film’s shortcomings, Hosoda is saying something important here, and his message can be heard loud and clear. Of course, the most perplexing issue is how Suzu, one of five billion users, managed to secure a common noun for a username.