There is nothing Academy Award-nominated director Mamoru Hosoda loves more than the Internet. Besides anthropomorphic animal-human hybrids (furries I’m talking about furries let’s just keep going). Most of his films deal with one or the other, and Belle embraces both with open arms. Ostensibly an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Belle pays homage to many fairy tale concepts and Hosoda’s favorite recurring themes.
Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a high schooler living in a small rural town in the south of Japan. Never having gotten over the death of her mother, she has mostly retreated within herself. A friend recommends she join an online service called “U” that scans your biometric data and creates an avatar meant to represent your true self. Suzu’s avatar takes the form of a beautiful pink-haired songstress she first calls Bell (Suzu means bell in Japanese), later becoming known as Belle (hastily explained in dialogue because the U denizens think she’s like the fairy tale, but no real complaints), who soon rockets in popularity and becomes the biggest celebrity on U. Suzu is intent on keeping her identity as Belle a secret, especially as Belle becomes targeted by a mysterious creature known as “the Dragon” (Takeru Satoh) who wishes to keep Belle for himself. Here is where the film becomes a virtual Beauty and the Beast, with some sequences that are almost beat for beat drawn from the Disney adaptation in a way that made me wonder if Mickey Mouse knows about this– but veteran Disney animators Jin Kim and Michael Camacho consulted on Belle’s design, so I guess he’s fine with it…
Belle’s animation is lovingly rendered in a blend of traditional and computer graphics, like a more advanced version of The Iron Giant rather than Earwig and the Witch (one of the worst things to ever happen in the history of anime). It might look a little strange at first, but it doesn’t take long for the colors and music to overwhelm. I normally can’t stand 3D anime, but the contrast between Belle and Suzu here, and Belle’s unworldly beauty and talent, is the point of the film. The vocal performances in the real world sound naturalistic, while U is full of high drama with proclamations of battle and love. U is a world of metaphor. It is unclear what services it provides besides the character creation, unlike Summer Wars where the magic internet has replaced the regular one. Hosoda is wise to keep it vague as the technical stuff does not matter. What matters is Suzu figuring out who she is and if Belle is worth trying to be, especially if Belle can’t help the true identity behind the Dragon.
Writing about anime can be difficult. There’s a rhythm to most anime films and series which I understand in my bones, but can’t really intellectualize. You just have to “lean in,” as it were. The climax is simultaneously grander and smaller than that of Summer Wars in surprising ways, but what hasn’t changed is the intensity of emotion. By the grand finale, watching Belle feels like a rollercoaster with huge speakers pumping incredible music into your skull. It’s certainly not for everyone, and it’s not even my favorite Hosoda (can anything top The Girl Who Leapt Through Time?), but Belle continues the grand tradition of anime turning the anxieties of their protagonists into something world-altering and glorious expressing those emotions in a manner as grand as they feel.
dir. Mamoru Hosoda
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