In a career spanning over 20 years, writer/director Mamoru Hosoda has cultivated a filmography of works which communicate to the general masses (Digimon: The Movie (2000)) and to a specific niche audience (Summer Wars (2009); Mirai (2018)). Full disclosure: Mirai is my 19th favorite film of 2018 and my introduction to Hosoda’s work. It’s a film which not only tugs at the heartstrings as it explores the complicated nature of siblings and the way in which personal perspective shifts the truth about family, it takes advantage of the medium to create situations that are often beautiful, silly, or upsetting in a way which wouldn’t work in traditional cinematic media. The same can be said of Hosoda’s new film, BELLE, a film which borrows a bit from the 1740 French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) and is given a hefty sprinkling of that Summer Wars Internet Age philosophy. The end result should be a film we’ve all seen before just in a new gorgeous package, but that would be an absolute underestimation of the creative mind at work. Hosoda uses the familiar as the foundation for a tale of sorrow and grief, redemption and love, and, most powerfully, how anonymity doesn’t breed freedom, but reclamation of identity.
To those who see her, Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura) is a shy, quiet girl who’d prefer to get through her day on her own. They’d all be surprised to learn that, in the online interactive space know as U, Suzu is the acclaimed singer known as Belle. Only her best friend, computer expert Hiro (voiced by Lilas Ikuta), knows the truth and helps Suzu better manage the otherworldly and often intimidating aspects of U. At first, U is a place where Suzu can sing again, something she hasn’t been able to do since the death of her mother, but when a concert is interrupted by someone on the run from U’s self-proclaimed protective force, Belle finds herself drawn to this pained individual known as The Dragon (voiced by Takeru Satoh), unaware that her first step toward him would lead to life-altering changes for them both.
To say that I had a visceral reaction to BELLE would be an understatement. I can’t explain entirely why as this review will remain spoiler-free. At least, not the specifics. What can be explained is that, like Summer Wars, I thought the film was going in one direction and Hosoda slowly and steadily moved it toward the unknown, the unpredictable, and, as that happened, I found myself more than surprised by what the characters were doing and began to ask myself questions about my own life and the people within it. It’s no secret that, in most interpretations at least, the Beast equivalent is driven by some kind of pain which keeps him in isolation. By using this motif, Hosoda obviously preys upon this expectation, so as to make the audience comfortable while they learn all about U and how the avatars (called As) work. Adding in Suzu’s storyline of personally-created social isolation offers the catalyst to enter U in the first place, setting her on the path to meet the Dragon. Here, Hosoda uses expectation against the audience who might presume that the conflicts will then arise from Suzu keeping her identity a secret while also cultivating a romance with this tortured soul. At every moment where you think the film will follow that track, Hosoda finds an alternative natural solution that pushes us toward a different and more satisfying outcome. In my case, the finale of the film shot me headlong into contemplation with me bawling my eyes out as I considered some previously unthought of notion that turned my entire world upside down.
Regarding Hosoda’s prior film Summer Wars, if you’ve seen it, then you’re aware that BELLE isn’t the first time the writer/director has utilized a massive online platform to tell a story. There, the online world of OZ is a place of limitless opportunity, where the creative and capitalist parts of the world converge. This allowed for Summer Wars to integrate the family conflict and romance aspects into the slow boiling final conflict seamlessly, leading to a particularly spectacular showdown. U does seem to be a retread of OZ in that the inhabitants are made up of digital avatars, except (a) it seems to be a largely creative space and (b) all of the users are tied to biometrics to prevent multiple account operators. Building off of this, the operators, while they can disguise how they look using a variety of forms, which are presented in the film via alternative art styles, as well, the real person is used as the base for the digital design. It’s a way of creating authenticity and, therefore, honesty within U. A huge difference between the veritable Wild West of our Internet. So while Suzu can hide her identity somewhat, she is still familiar to those who know her as there’s no masking her voice or identifying features. She may look like a princess, but she’s still her. At no point does Suzu attempt to change or hide herself within U, rather, she refinds herself, at least the part of herself so directly tied to her mother that it couldn’t work in her absence. Where Hosoda first used the massive online space as a place where anonymity rules, that U is so directly tied to the truth is a fascinating commentary on how much better the world would be if we considered the real people on the other side of the digital stream. This is highlighted, to a degree, by the so-called heroes that patrol U, threatening to shine a light which will remove their avatar and expose their real form. When did being yourself, being seen by the world, become the thing we would fear the most? That BELLE unveils itself to be a celebration of self would turn the most skeptical heart soft.
What helps is that, even in the heightened reality of U, everything is exceptionally grounded so that the emotion propelling the narrative always shines through. First and foremost, BELLE is a film about loss and how it shapes one’s perception of the world. For Suzu, she becomes less of herself, more withdrawn, except from those who force her to open up: Hiro and fellow classmate Shinobu (voiced by Ryō Narita). That the narrative seems entirely disinterested in exploring online fame in favor of how the ability to sing heals Suzu shouldn’t be as remarkable as it is, but there’s this purity to the notion that undoubtedly heartwarming. She’s not so much anonymous as the online superstar Belle as she is freed from the physical constraints of reality and it opens up her voice again. Then, when confronted with the Dragon, she doesn’t run away, rather, she moves toward him to understand. Why does he present himself as he does, why does he hide, why is he hunted? Under the expectation of Beauty and the Beast, one can come up with their own reasoning as to why Suzu seeks out the infamous online figure, but the truth of it is a sense of resonance. Do keep in mind that the original title of BELLE is Ryû to sobakasu no hime, which roughly translates to The Dragon and the Freckled Princess. It’s a more dramatic and accurate descriptive sounding name than BELLE, but it leans away from the Beauty and the Beast motif which the story so obviously leans on. Keep in mind that leaning is not a crutch, especially where the script becomes a story all its own.
If there’s a broader lesson to be learned from BELLE it’s not to underestimate Hosoda. Each time you think you know what you’re in for based on the briefest of summaries or smallest of teasers, you’re not going to get it. What you will get, for sure, is a feast for the senses. Studio Chizu has put in the work to clearly define the waking world and the online one so that we can tell which is tethered and which is less so. They take advantage of the digital space in a way in which the film feels cinematic, shaping the scope of things to create a sense of infiniteness to be filled with whatever the avatars can dream. That’s a lofty sandbox to control and they do it with aplomb. As though the vocal performances weren’t convincing enough of the gravity of the narrative, Nakamura herself is a notable singer, bringing with her the kind of talent that detaches a listener from where they sit and lifts them into a place of their own imagination. The final song, in particular, is what sent me reeling, personally, though I suspect it may not have the same effect for others. BELLE is truly an exquisite work that brings together the heart and imagination, creating a cinematic experience that’s truly transcendent.
In select theaters January 14th, 2022.
For more information, head to the GKids Films’s official BELLE website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.