Directed by: Mamoru Hosoda
Distributed by: Toho
Written by Patrick Hao
Mamoru Hosada’s “Belle” is set in two distinct worlds. One is the reality in which self-imposed teenage outcast, Suzu (Nakamura Kaho) is still reeling over her mother’s death. The real world, beautifully serene if not too mundane. The other world that Mamoru creates is the virtual world of U, a surrealist kaleidoscope of colors and characters. Here, millions of users can upload their biometrics to create a digital avatar and live in the online space. Suzu uses this space to create a beautiful singer named Belle, whom she performs through to release the anguish of loneliness.
One can imagine with this concept, that there will be a cynical take that technology is bad. But Hosada’s film is not reactionary it’s actually somewhat refreshing. “Belle” is nuanced and empathetic toward what an entirely online digital world can afford the people who populate it. He (Hosada) is weary of the online criticism and bullying that is fostered through broadcasting life and willing to celebrate the connections made by the outcasts and marginalized individuals that do find solace in online spaces.
“Belle,” as can be gleaned from the title, is an adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast.” When Suzu uses her avatar in U to express the deep emotional pain of her mother’s death, something she has not been able to do in the real world, she becomes a viral sensation, one that invites both praise and scorn – the most realistic commentary about the internet. One of her performances is interrupted by the Dragon, a beast-like figure being chased by the police force in the U. Suzu instantly feels kinship towards this monster tracking him down to his lair in which the familiar “Beauty and the Beast” beats are hit.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Suzu is dealing with a crush on Shinobi, a popular sensitive boy who was nice to her after her mother’s death, as well as trying to hide her identity as the popular online singer. This contrast of the mundane and the magical is beautifully rendered with the animation and atmosphere. Soon, Suzu realizes she has to figure out the real-world identity of the Dragon before he is exposed online which could cause great harm. This leads to a conclusion of profound empathy.
Hosada is able to balance a tricky tone with “Belle.” It is on one hand a J-Pop musical with soaring pop ballads. The world-building, especially one who is only familiar to western sensibilities, may be difficult to attach to. But Hosada is dealing with universal themes of kinship amongst those who are hurt. Hosada’s animation is an expressive piece of art using visual metaphors to try to get at an experience that is so often hard to explain. He is able to be successful by tethering it to genuine humanity of spirit.
In a media landscape in which technology is often scapegoated as a vague evil that exacerbates loneliness, it is refreshing to see such a nuanced take on it. What can make the internet great is also what makes it horrible. The film feels very attune to the teenage experience in that way.
Belle is in wide theatrical release.