Perhaps the most ambitious film to date by Japanese animator Mamoru Hosoda, which he himself describes as “the one I’ve been waiting to make,” Belle alternates between a quiet little town where its painfully insecure heroine lives and an exciting, wildly imaginative futureworld that takes your breath away with its beauty. Unfortunately, this enchanting virtual universe is only an Internet pipe dream where people take refuge in idealized avatars to escape the pain of the real world.
Bowing in the Cannes Premieres section before a world rollout later in the year, Belle has the look of a winner for the teen set. The visuals are often astounding, filled with breathless mid-flight battles and spectacular scenes of giant whales swimming in a liquid sky, which would have been called psychedelic in grandpa’s day. In this fantasy world, drugs have been replaced by gaming avatars as the escape mechanism of preference, and they seem to serve much the same purpose in removing the mind from reality. And yet Hosoda also sees some positive benefits in Internet and its ever-changing technology, perhaps as therapy for the repressed who need encouragement to bring their beautiful inner selves out of hiding.
Spectacular, imaginative and guided by human emotion.
Though constructed around teenage neurosis, which can get pretty grim at times, Belle (whose original Japanese title is Belle: Ryu to Sobakasu no Hime) is an immersive experience for anyone willing to give anime a try. As in all of Hosoda’s work, the family is at the heart of real-life drama and the source of his films’ emotional climaxes, like the unforgettable finale of Wolf Children in which a mother lets go of her son.
Here the traumatic loss is of the mother herself when Suzu (voiced by Kaha Nakamura) was a small girl. On an excursion, the mother plunges into a raging river to save a child and loses her own life in the process. Suzu, now a freckled schoolgirl of 17, has never forgiven her for abandoning her own daughter to save a stranger’s.
Her pain runs deep, and she frequently falls into self-pity and crying jags, making her a loner at school and less than an easy heroine to identify with. Things change when, with the help of her nerdish best friend Hiro, she enters the new virtual universe “U”, an Internet game that already has 5 billion players. It has been created by the Five Voices, a mysterious group of savants who are later humorously unveiled.
Under a sky-high dome filled with funny little flying avatars (from a distance they’re so numerous they look like swarms of insects), a stunning girl appears with champagne pink hair down to her waist, singing haunting songs from the back of a floating whale. This Barbie-like incarnation is Belle, the idol of U, who has replaced a certain Peggy Sue as numero uno with the likes. Naturally, everyone wonders who this glamorous creature is, little suspecting Belle’s “biometric information” has been uploaded from plain Jane schoolgirl Suzu. Back in everyday reality, Suzu is frightened by the haters who viciously attack her avatar, though Hiro assures her they are a necessary part of becoming a superstar.
Yet despite Belle’s enormous success, nothing seems to change for Suzu; she still gets tongue-tied and blushes fire-engine red in front of Shinabu (Ryo Narita), a boy who recognizes her fragility and tries to protect her, and she envies Luka, the prettiest and most popular girl in her class. After these dips into bleak reality with the world’s clumsiest teenager, one eagerly awaits her return to virtual fairyland, where she will become the compassionate Belle and grow up.
Belle is just about to sing in a mega-concert in front of her billions of adoring fans when a dark figure appears in the dome, a monstrous beast with the face of a wild boar and very aggressive manners. This unhappy intrusion in the perfect world whistles up a pack of flying superheroes called the Justices, led by the powerful blond Justin. Wittily, Hosoda makes these arrogant white-clad vigilantes the bad guys. As for the Beast, a chorus of tiny kids declare they’re rooting for him because they like bad boys.
Belle, too, senses there’s a beautiful person inside the Beast’s fearsome, bruised exterior and follows a trail that leads to his hidden castle. There they act out the Beauty and the Beast theme, until Justin finds them. The angry superhero threatens to use his green ring to “unveil their origins” and ban them forever from U.
The film’s final act is a tense countdown to save two human boys from their evil father — the same kind of unexpected reversal we have seen with Justin and the Beast. While it brings the whole cast together and shifts the action back and forth between reality and U, it feels like a drop in the brilliant imagination that precedes it. But the film recovers its emotional peak in the last sequence, when Suzu breaks through her traumas and reveals to the world the fine person she really is.
The classic artwork of Suzu’s small town immersed in nature contrasts in every way to the futuristic CGI of U, challenging the viewer to choose between them. Ludvig Forssell and Yuta Bando’s music binds the scenes together, swelling in a series of emotional crescendos that are Hosoda’s trademark.