Vassilis Kroustallis reviews the Japanese animation feature 'Belle' by Mamoru Hosoda.
Mamoru Hosoda is a techonological optimist. Even though he is quick to acknowledge the shortcomings of the alternate, virtual multiverses we all know seem to live, he still believes that inhabiting one of them, can change your life for the better. In that case, he is consistent with his earlier output (The Girl Who Leapt through Time, Summer Wars); alternate reality is a better guide for the reality we live in and we cannot cope with, even if it is the U alternate multiverse of the sparkling reworking of Beauty and the Beast theme in 'Belle' (2021, prod. Chizu studio).
In Hosoda's version of the tale, the original sin lies not with the Beast, but with Belle herself. Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a forever shy teenager, whose mother's death (shown in silent flashback) have left her unable to cope with the social world and sing her own song. She finds solace (helped by her best friend Chiro) in the U app and universe, disguised as Belle, a Japanese version of Shakira/Beyonce glamour and music -only with freckles.
The success is immediate, and so are her worries how to reconcile her newfound success with her still below-the-bar social abilities in school -also her inability to cope with the good-hearted child friend Shinobu (Ryō Narita). Sozu knows him as a source of solace since she her mother died, but her feelings have now changed -at least, have become more troubled. As a result, ordinary life still remains a source of unrest.
Hosoda manifestly (and dazzingly) shows this in his cleverly edited sequences; we pass from the dreary, ordinary school world, in which Suzy is framed almost incessantly behind the school windows, unable to move ; and in the 360 degree-rotated universe of U app, in which she is free as a bird and a lovable singer.
Enter the Beast (or rather the Dragon). A source of unrest in the corny but still visually beguiling universe, he brings his own wounds to the fore, and is constantly chased by Justin, the leader of a self-righteous group for breaking U's peace. Belle simply wants to confront the Dragon avatar (Takeru Satoh), otherwise she will simply lose her audience and her newly acquired fame.
'Belle' moves the fears and the guilt of the original story (and its the 1946 Cocteau and 1991 Disney animated version) from the Beast to the Belle. The fear of asserting your identity now becomes Suzu/Belle's own problem, who at the samme time needs to juggle both her need and fear of companionship, and her desire to become independent. Hosoda spends a lot of narrative time before actually moving to this, while the film's first act seems a prelude for social media criticism -which it ain't.
Even though it involves a fantasy world, the mystery of the Dragon has nothing to do with fairytales; despite the welcome visual enchantment of the Dragon's castle, the resolution of his secret will involve a very social and a realistic one, and its discovery grounds the film more solidly in everyday worries about kids and their parents. Suzu/Belle will need to do a lot of investigative work, making the last hour of the film a detective adventure situated in an alternate universe, but still familiar.
Hosoda's film is less groundbreaking than its theme suggests, and more destined to become an all-time favourite in teenagers and adults alike. He navigates with ease the terrain between teenagers and their eventual love initiation into adulthood; the film does feel stuffed at times, and the myriads of avatars and virtual screens in U universe won't really support for long the director's own message about individuality and commitment among a sea of unrecognizable virtual followers (in contrast, the times spent at the Dragon's castle ring the truer of all). That said, it is another charming transference into a past which we have learned to forget; his time machine does the trick of saving Suzu's own soul, Dragon's life and attracting our own interest.