Genre: CG Animation
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Cast: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh, Ryō Narita, Shōta Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Koji Yakusho, Lilas Ikuta
Runtime: 2 hrs 1 min
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures and Purple Plan
Opening Day: 18 November 2021
Synopsis: In the virtual world of “U,” there is no one more famous than Belle. A singer/songwriter with exceptional musical talent and fantastical beauty to match, no one would guess that, in the real world, Belle is Suzu Naito, a lonely, unremarkable teen traumatized by the death of her mother years before. Yet, there is one existence within the virtual world that is even more mysterious than Belle. Known only as “The Beast,” its monstrous form contains a strength unrivalled and a burning rage to match. Neither could have guessed that their first meeting would set in motion a chain of events that would change not only their lives but the lives of all those connected to them―both within the virtual world and without.
Mamoru Hosoda’s latest self-penned, directorial piece can be summarised as a gift that keeps on giving. To a certain extent, it definitely deserves more than a single sitting to truly appreciate all the positive messages and lush visuals the anime has.
Japan’s third highest grossing movie this summer, Belle tells the story of Suzu Naito, a shy freckled teenager who retreats to the virtual world of “U” after the accidental death of her mother. In the real world, Suzu is just another unremarkable teenager struggling to fit in school but in the virtual world, her avatar is a talented singer dressed in outrageous outfits who has billions of followers. In short, she is a virtual superstar known as Belle.
But things become complicated when a ferocious dragon-like creature barges into her concert one day, igniting the curiosity in her to find out more about the beast. Why is he living in isolation in a floating castle? And what are those bruises on his body? Belle is bent on finding out. The same applies to a bunch of overzealous so-called protectors of the virtual realm led by an avatar named Justin who is trying to capture and reveal the true identity of the dragon.
Hosoda delivers yet another thoughtful, engaging anime after Mirai with the focus on the internet hungry generation. In an era where anything is possible in the virtual world, the anime uses Belle as a story tool to showcase female empowerment without being ever too pushy. Its lesson, a strong one for audiences for all ages, is that being imperfect doesn’t stop you from being talented and beautiful on the outside. Everyone should have the fair chance to prove your worth, and that perhaps lies the strongest message of Hosoda’s movie.
Likely as a tribute or should we say enhancement to the Disney classic, Hosoda cleverly incorporates Beauty and the Beast to the story, an unexpected treat that also features the iconic ballroom dance scene. The similarity however stops here just in case you assume Hosoda is losing the plot. Belle retains one of Hosoda’s biggest trademarks, that is the continuation of featuring strong female leads from The Girl Who Leapt Through Time to Wolf Children and to Mirai, Suzu is the future mould of strong female characters simply put.
Besides that, Hosoda continues to be a solid storyteller by including themes on child abuse and teens angst and romance. We shall not divulge too much on the former but it comes as quite a shock (a good one actually) for an anime that draw more attention to its visual world and pop songs. Other secondary characters such as Suzu’s classmates, Luka and Kamishin contributes some zany comic relief especially the part where they confessed their puppy love to each other. Then there is Hiro, Suzu’s geeky best friend who is partly responsible for the creation of Belle. Shinobu, Suzu’s childhood friend who constantly acts as her secret protector and a group of chirpy choir ladies who are friends of Suzu’s late mother that appears as and when to support Suzu. In addition, there ought to be more screentime devoted to the distanced relationship between Suzu and her father but that’s just us nitpicking.
Although Hosoda has done Summer Wars, another sci-fi based anime more than a decade ago, his very own Studio Chizu has delivered a stellar piece of work as compared to their previous productions in terms of animation. The computer graphics rendered for the virtual world is fantastic and complements well with the 2D static hand drawn technology which remains my all-time favourite over the years. Certainly, with the release of the deliberately paced Belle, Mamoru Hosoda has reached a whole new level of storytelling. The man needs to be recognised with an Oscar or something.
(With eye-popping visuals and a contemplative storyline, Belle is very much up there with the best of Studio Ghibli)
Review by Linus Tee