The follow-up to visionary Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda’s Oscar-nominated Mirai, in which a young child comes to terms with the arrival of a baby sister through meeting her older self, is yet again a tale that pushes its characters to face their mirror images in order to grow.
Serendipitously timed with the sub-genre of video-game-slash-dystopian-allegory’s recent popularisation due to Hwang Dong Hyuk’s Squid Game, Belle takes on a less immediately threatening perspective, but one that ends up just as complicated behind the scenes. While it’s perhaps not recommended as an introduction to anime – it definitely celebrates the weirder side (from a Western perspective, of course) of the art form, as well as the wonderful. Belle is undoubtedly a feat of animation mastery.
“U” is the ultimate virtual reality/social media platform: powered through ‘body-sharing technology that brings out the user’s hidden strengths,’ plain nobodies can become universally celebrated through their avatar’s fame, with their true identities remaining hidden. Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is quickly propelled to the height of this celebrity with her beautiful alter ego Belle’s persona layered over her stunning vocal talent. But when one of her ultra-popular virtual concerts is interrupted by a mysterious beast (Takeru Satoh) with a cloak of bruises (literally), she is drawn to unveil his true identity in a quest that will send her on a journey of discovery far beyond the realm of video games.
Hosoda has always been a storyteller with a passion for contemporary (or just slightly advanced) technology. His filmography is full of movies that are not necessarily strict allegories or social commentaries, but that explore the way evolving modernism influences and shapes human ambitions. This time we’re diving into the chaos of online followings, idolizing performers (notoriously self-conscious creatures), and what the internet can hide from us. Yet while whimsical and wacky from all angles, as with all of Hosoda’s films the fantastical takes up only half of the narrative. The outside world situations and obstacles are the real dilemmas for the characters – technology is the escape that empowers his heroes to make changes in the real world.
At first fuelled by familiar high school tropes (the tall basketball player, the gossipy girl clique, the cool-headed technology mastermind clashing), as the stakes rise throughout the film’s 124-minute runtime the teenage heroes show true depths of maturity as they adapt to what quickly become very real problems. The influence of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale is undoubtedly from the ‘looks can be deceiving’ lesson, however, Hosoda doesn’t just use the subgenre for easy fantastical fixes. An integral characteristic of the fairy tale (as opposed to folklore or myth) is that the storyteller consciously sets up their own rules – and only then can they break them. Not only does Hosoda empower the audience to see the subtext beneath his film in this way, but he also draws back on the intrinsic role these classical tales have had on human development, tying it back in once again to how modern technology can be an empowering platform if used well.
It’s worth mentioning that Hosoda is not blindly optimistic either; there is plenty wrong with his fictional online universe U. The whims of the masses can change fast, and even faster when the person you’re seeing isn’t all they appear to be, capitalizes so wonderfully in the tragic figure of the mysterious, aggressive beast – though he is, of course, referred to as ‘The Dragon,’ even in English subtitles, a small detail with a lot of context. In traditional fairy tales, dragons portrayed across East Asia were often mighty protectors (albeit intimidating ones) rather than the tyrannical monsters we often think of in Western stories. The lines are pretty blurred these days with the back-and-forth influence of both East and West on each other, but it’s especially fitting here considering the true character the ‘dragon’ in Belle turns out to be.
Though the film’s sometimes sickly sentimentality can’t be entirely ignored, there’s a lot of substance under the style here. Boiling it down to ‘cyber-bullying’ is nothing if not reductive and seems to entirely disregard the events of the final act; there’s so much more political and social awareness at play here than a few trolls writing hateful comments because they have nothing better to do. The final reveal addresses a shockingly contemporary issue rather closer to home than the audience may expect. Belle proves that anime has been the single most imaginative, original, and visually innovative format of storytelling for literally decades. Here’s hoping that Belle reminds naysayers in the West of that.
Belle opens in theatres on February 4
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard