There isn’t a talking candlestick in sight in Mamoru Hosoda’s sci fi fairy tale.
“You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U.”
If there’s one thing we value online more than anything, it’s our privacy and anonymity. The ability to become anybody without having our true selves uncovered once behind the protective veil of the internet has for sure had plenty of downsides, but for many people for whom the real world is too much to deal with, it provides an opportunity to escape, even for a bit. What we do with that anonymity matters, however, and when everyone else is equally invisible, finding any sort of help amongst the countless unknowns can be difficult, if not impossible. It’s in how we deal with those issues that the Beauty and the Beast-ish animated movie from Wolf Children director Mamoru Hosoda Belle shines.
Suzu was once an outgoing, confident girl whose love of songwriting was matched only by her talent in singing. When her mother passes away trying to save the life of another girl, Suzu feels abandoned, and retreats into herself, losing her ability to sing, as well as all but a small handful of friends. However, when she joins the VR social network U under the avatar Bell and starts to sing once more, she gains a massive overnight following, largely thanks to her best friend and manager Hiro. One of her concerts is crashed by a beastly figure known as Dragon (or Beast, even), who is being hunted by a self-proclaimed warrior of justice known as Justin (this movie’s Gaston). As Suzu spends more time in U, and with Dragon, she starts to see Dragon for what he is, while learning to deal with her own trauma.
Hosoda’s very light use of the Beauty and the Beast is a strong point in this movie’s favour. Whereas a lesser writer would dip their pen too often into the well, Hosoda only takes the elements he needs to tell the story he wants to, and as a result Belle’s central drama comes across as one of its strongest points, with two excellent characters supported by a host of fleshed out and interesting friends. In many ways, the real world of Belle is where the story shines the most, as the world of U does raise a few logistical and plot questions, like how or why the system allows for PVP combat and shounen battle sentai squads. If it focused too strongly on that and not on its human issues, the movie would feel a lot less gripping. Thankfully, it gets a lot of smaller details right, such as the way it shows countless languages being translated in real time, which is enough to make us not think about the specifics of Bell’s overnight celebrity.
The animation is as stunning as you’d expect from a Hosoda film, and the subtle change to a convincing (but still noticeable) CGI style whenever the scene shifts to the U-world is the sort of detail that one would expect from someone as dedicated to the craft of animation as he. Personally I preferred the real-world scenes, especially as most of the time we see the U it’s often the same blocky, busy metropolis we see in countless other anime. When they move out to places like the Dragon’s castle, the creative time are given a chance to really showcase their design skills, but nevertheless the noisy, purposefully overwhelming nature of U gives way to immense amount of relief whenever we cut back to the real world with its soft colours and calming acoustic sounds.
Using Beauty and the Beast as a basis for your story on the way we hide who we truly are online is clever, and highlights a lot of self-image issues we face on a daily basis. It also lets the movie float by as a fairy tale fable, hinted at in its Japanese title, which gives it a tonne more wiggle room in the internal logic department. Sometimes it’s hard to take the stakes seriously when AIs and virtual castles are treated with the same severity being doxxed (which is seen as something of good thing in this world), but to the person behind the Dragon mask – the AI characters are as real, if not more so, than whatever they have to deal with offline.
It’s also worth noting that Belle also has plenty of moments of comedy which do well to inject life into the film whenever it runs the risk of taking itself too seriously. That does means there’s the occasional moments of tonal and pacing whiplash as you never know what’s coming next. Honestly, I could have done less of the scenes of Justin and his friends playing the obvious villain roles, even as much as I enjoyed his fake internet White Knight persona. The drama speaks for itself fine enough. Nevertheless, it culminates in a powerful finale where the movie’s themes and gorgeous musical score (and giant internet whales) come together to give us an ending that’s as touching and beautiful as it is convenient. It’s pretty lucky that out of 5 billion users, the Dragon lives within the greater Tokyo region. Though boy was I glad that Dragon wasn’t one of her own friends.
Verdict: Despite the sometimes loud and bombastic setting, Belle remembers its themes of trauma and reinvention, and remains a poignant and moving drama throughout.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Canoe club: I’d join. Looks like a blast.
Coincidences: Apparently there are only about four people in town, as they keep running into each other
Also known as: 竜とそばかすの姫 (The Dragon and Freckled Princess)
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Writer: Mamoru Hosoda
Kaho Nakamura – Suzu Naito
Takeru Satoh – Dragon
Lilas Ikuta – Hiro
Kōji Yakusho – Suzu’s father
Ryō Narita – Shinobu
Shōta Sometani – Kamishin
Tina Tamashiro – Luka
Toshiyuki Morikawa – Justin
Fuyumi Sakamoto – Okumoto
Kenjiro Tsuda – Jelinek
Mami Koyama – Swan
Mamoru Miyano – Tokoraemaru
ermhoi – Peggy Sue
Michiko Shimizu – Kita
Ryoko Moriyama – Yoshitani
Sachiyo Nakao – Hatanaka
Yoshimi Iwasaki – Nakai
Sumi Shimamoto – Suzu’s mother
Ken Ishiguro – Kei’s father