While not a household name in the west, Mamoru Hosoda is quickly rising as a true visionary. He is as synonymous with Studio Chizo as Hayao Miyazaki is with Studio Ghibli, and here he bridges the gap between sci-fi and fantasy with ease.
However, unlike Studio Ghibli which often sets its films in a nostalgic past or a fantasy world, Hosoda’s films are very consciously set in the present, or at least a recognisable not-too-distant future, often featuring a science fiction premise, and a young protagonist with personal problems. Yes, the technology in Belle is incredibly advanced, but not a million miles away from the social media we know and love/hate today.
A loose adaptation of Beauty And The Beast crossed with Ready Player One, the story follows Suzu, a socially awkward girl with a tragic backstory, who finds her voice through a new app, named “U”, where users can upload themselves as an Avatar, called an “AS”. Suzu uploads her avatar and gives herself a pseudonym, Belle. Finding her confidence to sing again, she is catapulted into stardom, with millions of adoring fans wondering who is behind the avatar. When an online concert is disrupted by another user, by a dragon-like avatar nicknamed “the beast”, the entire “U” community sets out to discover his real identity, but Suzu forms her own touching relationship with the mysterious character.
Of Hosoda’s films, I’d only previously seen the brilliant The Girl Who Leapt Through Time which has a similarly high concept premise, although Belle is much more ambitious in scale and concept. What I loved about the film, even more than the animation, is Hosoda’s measured direction. He uses editing in a way you would normally associate with a live action film, conveying exposition and emotion to often devastating effect. He’s also not afraid to hold on an image for as long as necessary. There are numerous moments of silence that are just as powerful as the spectacular effects and melodies on display.
It’s not quite perfect. The story is overly earnest and very cheesy in places (it’s anime after all) and some of the more emotionally fraught scenes don’t land as well as they might in the original language, but in little character moments it’s inexplicably moving. The smaller scale story, following Suzu navigating her way through the politics of high school, (wryly depicted as a literal war zone in one scene) resonates a lot more than the overly sentimental, overwrought melodrama that comes from the search for the Beast’s identity.
However, any story concerns are dwarfed by the animation, which is breathtaking. It’s one of the most visually striking animated films I’ve seen since maybe Isao Takahata’s The Tale Of Princess Kaguya – not in terms of style (Belle has more in common aesthetically with Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost In The Shell: Innocence) but in its sheer audaciousness and creativity, and how it grabs your attention from the very start. The epic scale of the animation felt reminiscent of Richard Williams’ work on The Thief And The Cobbler in the way hand-drawn and CGI animation is combined together, and there are a handful of visual references to Disney’s Beauty And The Beast that are beautifully evocative, if not particularly subtle. The songs are all fittingly epic as well, with the climactic rendition of A Million Miles Away is likely to draw a tear from even the most cynical audience member.
Belle is an overwhelming ambitious film, a breathtaking combination of beautiful landscapes and science fiction technology (the “AS” character designs harks back to Hosoda’s directorial debut, the first Digimon film) that coheres into an incredibly poignant story. It’s an awe-inspiring film, albeit one that may be a bit of an acquired taste. In any case, you have to see this!