|Starring||Kaho Nakamura, Ryō Narita, Shōta Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Lilas Ikuta, Kōji Yakusho, Takeru Satoh|
|Length||2 Hour 1 Minute|
|Release Date||July 16, 2021 (Japan), January 14, 2022 (US)|
I can’t really speak to trends in the anime industry. Even when I was still a weeb in high school, I wasn’t well versed enough to discuss broad intergenerational trends in the art form. Regardless, I find one trend to be completely incorrect in modern criticism: The desire to name every Japanese anime director the “next Miyazaki.”
My reasons should be clear enough. Japan has a huge animation industry with thousands of talented professionals, and Miyazaki’s oversized international reputation tends to hide other artists in its wake. Artists like Makoto Shinkai have to spend their time living in the shadow of another rather than developing their own ideas and being rewarded for having a unique approach to storytelling. Shinkai in particular was distraught that his 2016 film Your Name outgrossed Miyazaki’s films because he was afraid he didn’t deserve it.
Of all the artists I’m familiar with within Japan, I must say if there’s anyone I’ve found who deserves some special commendation it’s Mamoru Hosoda. His films have consistently risen to the top of my best-of lists. Wolf Children is one of the most emotionally devastating films I’ve ever watched, and The Boy and the Beast affects my masculine soul so deeply that I never get tired of revisiting it. His other films – The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Mirai – are also excellent!
Violence/Scary Images: Some brief scenes of violence, battle, and brawling; several scenes of characters having blood pour over injuries
Language/Crude Humor: Minimal
Sexual Content: The story follows high school students who like one another, but their feelings aren’t consummated. Most of the characters are too embarrassed to admit their feelings for each other
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Spiritual Content: None
Other Negative Themes: Depictions of domestic abuse and depression
Positive Content: Themes of connection, love, and trust
I didn’t go into Belle with many expectations. I briefly watched one of the trailers and knew the film was likely going to be some sort of Beauty and the Beast pastiche, but besides that, I went in blind. My worst thought going into it was a vague worry it would just be a retread. Hosoda has already made several films about the internet such as Digimon Adventure and Summer Wars, and my concern was he would be revisiting old territory.
Thankfully, Belle proved me wrong. By the film’s second scene, I completely understood what it was going for, and I was compelled by it.
The story follows Suzu Naito, a 17-year-old Japanese high school student living a very gloomy and sad life in seclusion in the distant rural outskirts of Tokyo following the tragic passing of her mother years prior. She used to connect with her mother through music, but now she’s so deeply emotionally crippled that trying to sing makes her vomit and cry.
Suzu discovers a new phone app called U, a massively multiplayer online VR game, similar to Facebook’s Metaverse, that allows people to hang out online. The catch is that their virtual avatars are a reflection of people’s personalities. Mean people get petty avatars, kind people get beautiful avatars, and angry people get monster-like avatars. When Suzu arrives in the game, she discovers her avatar is a beautiful princess and can sing so beautifully that she suddenly becomes a viral pop star.
That’s the clever conceit. Belle is a movie about the nature of online anonymity and how it affects the way people interact, retreat into themselves, and express themselves publically. The metaphor gets heavier when a monster being known as “the beast” shows up. He’s an invulnerable monster being chased by the game’s law enforcement who have the power to “unveil” people at will and show their identity to the world, which is the only way someone can really get hurt in the game since most users are brutal gossips and serial harassers.
One would assume Belle would play out as a straightforward adaptation of Beauty and the Beast with a cyberpunk flair, but it doesn’t totally go in that direction. For one, it’s not strictly a love story. There are love subplots in the film, but the only fully completed romance subplot doesn’t involve Suzu. The Beast and Belle never fall in love, and the reveal about his identity doesn’t lean into the soapy love story it could’ve been, instead of turning quiet, dark, and sad by exploring the real-life hidden reason for the Beast’s anger.
Instead, Belle focuses on the more literal aspect of its precursor’s story and turns into a movie about learning to see past the surface to appreciate the humanity underneath, much like Beauty and the Beast did to great effect. Suzu is an awkward, average-looking, and quiet teenage girl who suffers normal alienation from not being popular or accepted. Belle lets her live out a fantasy of being popular and talented without the trauma of real-life holding her down. “U” itself advertises itself as a world where people can have a second chance at being who they truly want to be without the baggage of real life.
This ultimately sets up the film’s finale and thematic conclusion. Suzu’s story, predictable though it may be, ultimately is about her learning to work past her anxiety and be who she truly is in order to make connections she needs to be free of her trauma and connect with others. Belle plays with the way anonymity destroys trust and how the internet can simultaneously make the world more connected but less understanding and empathetic. Suzu needs to learn to accept herself for who she truly is and face the real trauma that informs her life in order to help others trust and respect her as much as she desires them to.
Being a Hosoda film, Belle is also beautiful in a visual sense. The animation is spectacular, although some of the lipsyncing in the musical number scenes are off or weirdly framed. Strangely, the issues were in the Japanese voiced version instead of being artifacts of a bad dub. Besides that, the film is wonderful to look at. Hosoda finds a great way to meld the goofy chibi cyberspace look with a grounded and naturalistic real world where the environments feel real. The result is a film where there is a very real and substantive divide between the gritty real world and the fantastical world of U.
Belle is a wonderful anime film and one I am already eager to watch again when it comes out on DVD. I don’t know for sure if it will age as gracefully as Hosoda’s other films, or as weirdly as some of his other films, but I can say it’s a worthy continuation of one of Japan’s most interesting anime filmmakers. Few artists know how to cut to the painful humanity of their characters in ways that emotionally wreck me as he does.
The Bottom Line
Belle is yet another well-made and emotionally resonate anime film from director Mamoru Hosoda who continues to create massive science fiction films with big and complex human emotions.