Published on January 18th, 2022 | by Blake Morrow0
Mamoru Hosoda’s new anime film, Belle, features some amazing animation, and follows themes about our online lives and the affect it has on our psyches.
Combining the chaos of the endless possibilities of the digital realm with the chaos of the endless struggle of going through high school, Belle is the latest anime from acclaimed director Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children and Mirai). It transplants the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast from its familiar setting to the frenetic digital world of “U.” Billions of people spend their time in U, an immersive social media platform with avatars designed to reflect each user’s true inner-self. Enter Suzu, an agonizingly shy Japanese high schooler confined to an existence out of the spotlight. Skeptical to sign up at first, Suzu is shocked to find that her avatar in the world of U is a radiant beauty, the complete opposite of how she sees herself. Unable to sing in real life, she finds her voice online and quickly gains fame as the anonymous pop singing icon named Belle. That is until a mysterious, beastly user known as “The Dragon” begins to cause havoc for Suzu and everyone else in the world of U.
Setting aside any dystopian concerns about letting a social media app scan your biometrics for your online avatar (what could possibly go wrong?), Belle is a film that fully embraces the possibilities of human connection in the cyber realm. This is hardly new territory for Hosoda as the idea and art style for U has been used several times before, particularly in 2009’s Summer Wars. That being said, U’s animation is as creative as ever. Colorful digital designs and expressive avatars make it tangible that billions of people would call U home (Belle performs on a boom box whale for crying out loud) and the hyper-kinetic energy of action scenes doesn’t disappoint. The cartoonish designs of U are nicely juxtaposed with the more naturalistic style of the reality segments which, to me, have a simplistic beauty that makes Hosoda one of my favourite animators. Characters in both the cyber and natural world are rich, fleshed out, and well-written. Suzu is a heroine that, although she dips her toes in many of anime’s cringier stereotypes, rises above it and serves as a fresh encapsulation of adolescence and all of its excruciating awkwardness.
Although I would have preferred to watch Belle in its native Japanese language I ended up seeing the English dubbed version instead. Singing is Suzu’s biggest talent and only through Belle does she find the courage to let her voice be heard. Although I found a few of the songs to be rousing, I often asked myself how the Japanese renditions would have sounded in comparison and if something may have been lost in translation. It’s impossible for me to say what the differences between the two dubs are although, with so many background voices in the world of U, I found the quality of many of the smaller performances to be wooden. That could have something to do with the dialogue of these characters though, often comprised around dismissive comments you could find bandied about by keyboard warriors on any Twitter thread, Instagram post, or TikTok video.
It’s in this darker side of the internet where Belle has its most poignant insights. In an era where kid’s cell phones act as portals to the world, relatively harmless dreams of being social media influencers are being cultivated just as much as a need by many to put others down. There is A LOT of movie in Belle. On top of being an adaptation of a beloved tale, it’s an exploration of the effect social media is having on the self-worth of our youngest generations, a treatise on treating others with kindness, and frequently a pop idol wish fulfillment extravaganza. It doesn’t exactly tread new ground and not every element meshes into a seamless whole but I’d be lying if I said the overwhelming heart behind Hosoda’s direction wasn’t enough to overpower me. Belle is relentlessly cheesy, overflowing with sap, and filled with so much genuine emotion that it’s an anime you don’t want to miss.