In 2020, about five months into pandemic induced lockdown I decided to do a little crash course in the works of one of the most important filmmakers in anime, Mamoru Hosoda. There wasn’t any particularly topic reason to look at Hosoda’s movies in August of 2020 and I actually don’t remember why I decided to look at those movies in particular but it was a good choice because Hosoda’s work proved to be rewarding. If you set aside Hayao Miyazaki (who’s always going into and coming out of retirement) and the title of most important voice in cinematic anime is probably a contest between Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai, who both emerged in the 2000s as makers of sentimental feature films with supernatural elements aimed towards vaguely teenage audiences. Shinkai’s movies, like Your Name and Weathering With You have reached greater heights at the box office but Hosoda and his animators at Studio Chizu have had more of a consistent track record and even scored an Academy Award nomination for their last film Mirai. Hosoda’s latest film, Belle, also seems to have an outside shot at scoring a place in the Best Animated Feature category in that annual slot where Gkids distributed foreign films tend to compete, though this one may be a slightly tougher sell with Academy voters than it will be with young otaku.
Belle is set in a not too distant future that’s basically just like today except there’s a new version of the internet called “U” which is like a virtual reality program where people move around as anonymous avatars… so, kind of like the “metaverse.” The “U” is abuzz over a new user named Bell, a beautiful singer with a piercing voice who draws hundreds of thousands of followers pretty much from the day she shows up. What these people don’t know is that “Bell” is actually Suzu Naito (Kaho Nakamura), an anonymous teenager living in rural Japan who otherwise suffers from normal awkward teenager problems. Suzu is especially awkward because she had a difficult childhood after her mother passed away trying to save a drowning girl leaving Suzu with her distant father. Suzu isn’t quite sure what to make of her anonymous fame but things get a lot weirder when her onscreen avatar crosses paths with a much less beloved avatar named Dragon (Takeru Satoh), who everyone is angry at because he fights dirty in combat programs and then disrupts one of Belle’s concerts, drawing the ire of an online vigilante group led by someone named Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa). Soon Suzu/Belle becomes interested in this rather beastly individual and wonders if maybe he’s just misunderstood and starts a search to see who he really is.
This is not the first time that Mamoru Hosoda has envisioned a virtual reality version of the internet, a nearly identical device was at the center of his very well liked 2009 film Summer Wars though the concept here is a bit more expansive and trippy. Like, the Belle avatar frequently performs by standing on top of a whale that’s floating around in cyberspace and everyone else in the movie has a weird abstract avatar form as well. A lot of this does resonate as an elaborate metaphor for existing online behavior: Belle is basically someone who “goes viral” and doesn’t know what to do with her newfound fame, Justin is someone who uses some veneer of justice to engage in cyber bullying and doxing, and later we look at a scenario where the internet can be used to reach out to someone in need of support. However, the internet parallels can at times be muddled as well. For instance it’s rather unclear what exactly this beast character did to get people mad and what its real internet equivalent is. Is he a troll? A video game cheat? Someone cringe? It feels a bit vague. I would also add that this theme of internet anonymity feels a touch dated. There was a time when most online participants might have been a bit more mysterious but today most “influencers” are at least nominally using their real names and faces even if the personality they present is constructed.
The “Beauty and the Beast” metaphor here is also pretty muddled. The movie certainly isn’t subtle about this fairy tale illusion what with Belle’s name and the fact that she finds the beast in a mysterious castle and needs to defend him against a Gaston figure. The movie even goes so far as to directly allude to the Disney version of this tale with a scene where Belle dances with the beast in a big animated ballroom. But there are some pretty stark differences as well, namely that *spoilers* beauty and beast in this one do not end up as lovers and the beast isn’t any kind of prince either. Instead the film leads up to a rather strange ending involving a rescue that doesn’t make a lot of sense outside of symbolism of intention. The whole movie operates on a very heightened and kind of teenager logic of big emotions, it does occasionally sort of call this tendency out a little but it ultimately does go for that big Makoto Shinkai style catharsis at the end. Honestly I think Shinkai is better at that sort of thing and Hosoda already did the whole VR internet thing better with Summer Wars, so this is definitely a flawed work from him that gets lost in the multiple simultaneous metaphors. However, I do worry that I’ve kind of buried the lead a bit here which is that the film does sport some pretty top rate widescreen anime visuals which go a pretty long way toward smoothing over some of the film’s narrative shortcomings and the film’s characters are pretty fun and likable well so it’s hard to be too angry at the movie.
*** out of Five