After gaining an Academy Award nomination for his debut feature Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda‘s second anime movie Belle doesn’t disappoint and proves to be his most ambitious project to date. A visual feast that plays on classic fairy tales mixed with a touch of cyberbullying, Belle is a touching story full of charm and imagination. Telling the story of a girl who ventures into a virtual world to overcome her trauma, here is a film that has some banging tracks, a story that may make you cry, and will undoubtedly end up being any anime connoisseur’s bread and butter.
Written by Mamoru, Belle follows high school student Suzu (Kaha Nakamura), who, after her mother’s death, can’t sing in public due to a mental block and deep-seated pain. She is also shown to be an introvert at school which doesn’t bode well for her chances with her long-time crush Shinobu (Ryo Narita), whom she continuously runs away from. However, instead of wallowing in grief, Suzu decides to log on to ‘U’, a popular virtual world that uses biometric data that brings out and amplifies the user’s inner strengths to their avatar. After logging on to U for the first time, Suzu finally finds her voice – becoming a viral sensation and the most popular pop star, called Belle, in the digital sphere.
However, Suzu’s emotional journey isn’t the primary focus in this movie. Instead, her personal character arc works in tandem with another plotline throughout Mamoru’s complex script. A spin on Beauty and the Beast is integrated into Belle when martial arts gamer, Dragon, crashes Belle’s concert, and the two are put onto a road of healing as they connect online.
There are magical roses, a mysterious castle where Dragon hangs out, and even a romantic musical number, giving the feature almost a Disney movie quality. As we see the two bond, being chased by the self-appointed police of U, and belting out a killer number, it is easy to get swept away by the bright world and interpersonal dynamic. It is also refreshing to see a take on the well-known fairy tale that adheres to the modern world. Belle showcases the benefits of technology and connecting with like-minded people online – a message that we don’t often see in movies about virtual reality, or anything computer related in general.
Mamoru’s script work further shines as he raises the stakes of the typical romance plot. As the users of U become obsessed with ‘unmasking’ Dragon – by revealing the person behind the avatar – Suzu gets caught in the crossfire. After seeing the two form a relationship through their shared pain triggered by family trauma, the threat of their safety and potentially not seeing each other again is a great driver for the story, and you can’t help but empathise with the characters.
But, all this being said, the writing isn’t faultless. In the film’s third act, the plot takes a misstep as it loses focus on Suzu, with the pacing throughout tending to dip as tension breaks whenever we see her log off and venture back into the real world.
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Given the contrast between Suzu’s online life and the one she lives in the real world, there’s a meaningful balance to be pulled off by the script in bringing us into both with equal value. For the most part, Belle achieves this but struggles to stick it out for the film’s full length, leading to an ending that feels imprecise despite the strengths of the film’s first and second act.
However, the film is enjoyable, even as it jumps, thanks to Mamoru’s ability to craft incredibly likeable characters. In Belle, there is a bundle of typical high school anime tropes that are a pure delight and add a lot of needed humour into an otherwise heavy film. Suzu’s best friend Hiroka is a hilarious whiz kid, loveable dorky Shinjiro is the only member of the school’s canoeing club, and Shinobu is a stone-cold ‘cool guy’ with a heart of gold. It’s a familiar dynamic, and certain comedic moments between the high schoolers are scenes that anime fans will recognise immediately.
The anime influences also stretch into the look of the film. Like the previously mentioned two narrative plotlines working together in this movie, the art style is vastly different depending on if the action is in the real world or in the virtual space of U. Suzu’s everyday life has a soft hand-drawn 2D quality that is very Ghibli-esque.
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On the other hand, U is 3D CGI, bustling with fantastical colours: we see Belle performing on the back of a humpback whale covered in flowers; how much more imaginative can you get? The stunning art is complemented by a catchy score, crafted by Ludvig Forssell (Death Stranding) and Yuta Bandoh (It Comes) that will get stuck in your head for days to come.
In short, Belle is a glorious spectacle for the eyes and an intense imaginative journey. Although struggling to stick the landing across its over two-hour length, it’s a film that anyone who appreciates animation won’t want to miss.
A charming explosion of imagination and colour that anime fans won’t want to miss.