Runtime: 122 minutes
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Writer: Mamoru Hosoda
Stars: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh, Ryo Narita, Shota Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Lilas Ikuta, Koji Yakusho
By Calum Cooper
While many would declare Makoto Shinkai the next Miyazaki of Japanese animation, I believe there’s an argument to be made for Mamoru Hosoda. Since breaking away from franchises like “Digimon” (1997-) and “One Piece” (1997-) to create his own stories, Hosoda has consistently proven himself to be a masterful storyteller. His seemingly simple concepts repeatedly lead to gargantuan creativity and heartfelt earnestness. His latest film, “Belle” (2021), continues this trend with exquisite splendour. It may even be Hosoda’s best since “Wolf Children” (2012).
Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a 17-year-old girl suffering from crippling loneliness. Once a happy child who loved singing, the death of her mother has turned her into a teenager of immense shyness, often prone to floods of tears as she wallows in self-pity. She avoids her peers, barely speaks to her father, and doesn’t even sing anymore. When her technowizard of a best friend introduces Suzu to the app U, a virtual world where people can create their own anonymous avatars, Suzu finally finds escapism.
In U, she becomes Belle, a beautiful woman with luxurious pink hair, retaining only Suzu’s facial freckles. Here Suzu finds herself able to sing again, comfortable with the knowledge that no one knows who she is. Yet this brings her overwhelming attention and popularity from the app, eventually bringing her in contact with another user named The Dragon, a horrifying boar-like creature whose user seems to be going through anguish similar to Suzu’s. This encounter leads Suzu through a journey of self-discovery and reconciliation.
“It is ultimately a story about the masks we wear when afraid of our inner selves, be it the anonymity of a virtual avatar or the roles we play to survive the hardships of life.”
One reviewer branded this film “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) meets “The Matrix” (1999). It’s not an entirely unapt comparison, especially to the former, given the character pairings, the name of Suzu’s avatar, and even some overt thematic elements. Yet this firmly remains a Mamoru Hosoda film. Boasting many of his usual charms, be it the animation, the humanistic focus, or the themes on family, this is a story about someone closed off from the world finding the courage and selflessness to reconnect. In the process “Belle” explores, among other things, grief, anxiety, bravery, and solidarity.
Hosoda’s team are no strangers to playing around with their animation, from “Summer Wars” (2009) to the various art styles that reflected each chapter in “Mirai” (2018). With “Belle” they cleverly blend two different styles, using Hosoda’s signature 2D hand drawings for the real world, and refined CGI for U, creating the impression of live 2D, almost as if to showcase a “perfect” version of the reality Suzu wants to shut herself out from. It’s a risky choice, especially in the aftermath of Studio Ghibli’s hugely disappointing “Earwig and the Witch” (2021). Yet it allows for vast amounts of visual splendour through its creative settings and multiple tones of colour. Some of the backgrounds even had input from Cartoon Saloon, a really pleasant surprise that no doubt elevated the film’s emotional spectrum.
“What it leaves us with is a film that is as emotionally astonishing as it is visually euphoric, blossoming into a finale equal parts stunning and deeply humanistic.”
The film also plays around with genre too. Romance is not as overt as its “Beauty and the Beast” parallels would suggest, but it is definitely present. In fact, the film’s funniest scene involves an awkward elongated exchange between two people crushing on each other. Yet it seems most grounded as a coming-of-age drama with scoops of sci-fi and fantasy, especially since Suzu’s character growth is so sincere and dynamic. It not only lends itself well to the magical realism that permeates all of Hosoda’s stories thus far, but it leads to some breath-taking imagery that often encompass the character arcs through single images. The greatest of these is a moment where Suzu sings in front of millions of U’s users, portrayed as distant lights. It’s a moment so rich in emotion and grandeur that you will be unable to blink from enrapturement let alone take your eyes off of.
That moment, as well as many others, capture the real heart of this film. It is ultimately a story about the masks we wear when afraid of our inner selves, be it the anonymity of a virtual avatar or the roles we play to survive the hardships of life. Suzu’s arc fulfils this splendidly, but many other characters, from the user behind The Dragon to the supposed queen bee at Suzu’s school, all have some level of inner strife that they must face. It makes for a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, particularly towards the end, with the aforementioned image giving Suzu the courage to stand up to one man. What it leaves us with is a film that is as emotionally astonishing as it is visually euphoric, blossoming into a finale equal parts stunning and deeply humanistic.
“Belle” has everything you could want from a Mamoru Hosoda film – gorgeous animation, compelling characters, and timely themes on family and the often stormy nature of mental health. Yet it is the profound empathy it has for its characters, and the reassurance it offers its audience that makes it such a mesmerising spectacle. It is a work of sensitive honesty and titanic imagination, and that is only the tip of its colourful, effervescent iceberg. While 2021 has offered a great array of animated features – from “The Mitchells vs the Machines” (2021) to “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021) – “Belle” is my choice for this year’s animated feature Oscar.