It may sometimes be a sensorial overload, but Hosoda’s invigorating reworking of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tale, now set in the virtual world of psychometric avatars, largely works and makes a point for the necessity of real human connection.
Cast: Kaho Nakamura, Ryo Narita, Shota Sometani
Plot: Suzu is a shy high school student living in a rural village. For years, she has only been a shadow of herself. But when she enters “U”, a massive virtual world, she escapes into her online persona as Belle, a globally-beloved singer.
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
International Sales: Charades / Nippon Television
Subject Matter: Moderate – Identity; Human Connection; Virtual Reality
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: In Theatres – The Projector
Over the last decade, Mamoru Hosoda has proved himself to be one of Japan’s most gifted anime directors, with films like Wolf Children (2012), Mirai (2018), and more. His latest, Belle, is a highly-anticipated reworking of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tale that we are all familiar with.
Here he sets it against a virtual world of psychometric avatars, where human beings can be ‘plugged’ into an app to chart their own existence afresh in a new world of opportunities punctuated by peril. It’s as if plugging into ‘The Matrix’ became voluntary.
A young girl named Suzu, a ‘country bumpkin’ as her peers tease her, becomes a world-famous singer named Belle in the virtual arena. As she captures the hearts of many, she unwittingly becomes emotionally involved in the rage-filled exploits of a Beast-like avatar.
“Everybody has a secret.”
However, Belle is not a straightforward reimagining of the fairy tale, with Hosoda taking pains to connect the ‘fantasy’ of the virtual world to real-world events in Suzu’s life—a not so implicit allegory of the ‘plugged-in anonymity’ that characterises much of the connected world today, where we can hide behind the ‘mask’ of a fake persona.
Animation-wise, Belle is imaginative (the opening sequence is one of the most invigorating prologues of the year) and there is a great sense of energy to the visuals.
The aesthetics, particularly of sequences in the virtual world, reminds of the best of the late Satoshi Kon, albeit less outwardly zany in nature, though some segments do seem rough-hewn—a stylistic intent perhaps?
Overall, the narrative largely works and makes a point for the necessity of real human connection despite the technological affordance of hyperconnectivity, though it may not always be coherent when pitted against the film’s conceptual ambition.