Beyond the limitations of daily life, which in many cases carries trauma, insecurities, conflicts, and worries with it, Belle introduces another realm where seemingly anything is possible. However, starting over isn’t always as blissful as it seems.
Award-winning director Mamoru Hosada is known for the successful films Wolf Children, The Boy and The Beast, and more at Studio Chizu. The Japanese name for Belle (Ryū to Sobakasu no Hime) translates to The Dragon and Freckled Princess and is based on the 1756 fairytale, Beauty and the Beast.
While there’s certainly a lot of heart to this film, it’s not quite like the classic “tale as old as time” that some fans know well. Whether you’ve read the traditional fairytale by French writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont or watched the Disney Beauty and the Beast, this film adds its own technological and social-media flair that makes for something never before seen.
There are so many genres going on in Belle’s plot, which creates a huge risk that the story will feel cluttered and overpacked. The 2-hour film takes on the ambitious task of filling several plot holes without leaving any loose ends, which for the most part works.
The movie is centered around seventeen-year-old high school student Suzu Naito (Kaho Nakamura) who lives in Kochi, a rural district in Japan. Suzu is offered a new path in life on “U,” a popular virtual world that offers users a chance to live as a new person.
Each U member is given an avatar based on their biometric information and hidden talents. In the real world, Suzu has gone through a great deal of loss and feels invisible at school, but on U, she’s a beautiful girl named Belle, meaning beautiful, with freckles and a mesmerizing singing voice.
However, the world of U reveals that while some people can forge new identities, it takes a lot more to change who they are and the lives they lead both on and off-screen. When a mysterious figure named the Dragon crashes one of Belle’s concerts, Suzu must unravel a dark force that prevails beyond her new virtual life.
The anime film does well in several ways, with an intriguing plot, complex characters, impressive animation, and enjoyable music. There may be a few predictable moments or convenient twists, but it’s altogether a must-see movie for anime fans.
The plot is engaging from the beginning, as it immerses people into something similar to a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) but also engages with anyone who adores something a bit more on the theatrical side.
There’s generally themes that reach across genres offering action, slice-of-life, drama, comedy, romance, anime teen romance especially, and more. Quite simply, the movie doesn’t settle for a specific genre and is allowed to be whatever it wants to become, similarly to the possibilities of the virtual world it introduces.
Some parts are a bit rougher than others, as worlds collide and the classic fairy tale meets Hosada’s unique writing and world-building style. The satisfying thing about it is that it doesn’t need to completely make sense to be gratifying. The point isn’t for people to understand all of the rules and logistics of how U works and interrogate it as a flawed system, similar to anime series like .hack//SIGN and Sword Art Online have previously done.
The film meets Hosada’s standard formula without being bland. There’s tragedy, a lot of beast stuff, and satisfactory twists and turns.
Belle introduces a lot of characters, a significant amount of backstory and chemistry to unpack as it balances both Suzu and Belle’s relationships, sometimes blurring the lines between the two. There’s a recurring question: Who is Belle? However, the answer is much more difficult to answer than even Suzu realizes.
She’s a teenager exploring her own identity, coming of age, relationships, school, and more while balancing an online persona who has her own set of obstacles, which means there are characters interacting with both of her identities.
There’s Suzu’s best friend Hiroka Betsuyaku who just so happens to be a computer genius, her childhood friend who’s also her crush, Shinobu Hisatake the popular girl she envies, Ruka Watabe and her goofy athlete classmate Shinjiro Chikami, some motherly choir ladies, and her father, whom she barely speaks to after a tragedy. Then, there are the relationships forged as Belle, particularly when it comes to the Dragon.
So, to say the least, there is a lot to juggle. Yet Hosada makes sure everyone is accounted for. While some things are left open-ended, the characters are constantly developing as their stories broaden instead of going stale or static. There’s a payoff that may seem completely predictable at first; some of it is, but the film ultimately has some unconventional conclusions.
While the animation isn’t the best out there, it’s pretty aesthetically pleasing, especially when it comes to the world of U. For those looking for a colorful MMO-like world with various avatars, comment bubbles, chat boxes and other video game meets social media and anime vibes, it’s going to be a pleasant ride. While anime movies in different realms and worlds aren’t unique, there’s something fresh and new about this one that’s truly eye-catching. It may be because Studio Chizu recruited Disney animation and character designers Jin Kim and Michael Camacho to create U and Belle.
One thing this film doesn’t sell anyone short of is music. Suzu’s relationship with music makes Belle’s voice all the more powerful. Music is at the heart of the film, but it isn’t the Disney singing that many people think of when they imagine the Belle. The singing style is similar to J-Pop and matches the futuristic virtual world.
Like most other musicals, the songs move the story forward and build intimacy between characters. They embrace the vulnerability of being who they are at their core without hiding or changing. In Belle, music isn’t just for the sake of music; it’s used to represent Suzu’s own personal transformation and growth.
While Hosada sticks pretty close to his usual formula, this film still manages to be unique, engaging, and heartfelt. There are some parts of the plot that could have been stronger, but it reflects an overall depth and development that fosters entertaining characters, animation, music and multiple genres that have the potential to engage anime fans.
Belle will arrive in theaters nationwide on January 14.
What's Your Reaction?
Danielle Broadway is an English Literature MA student at California State University, Long Beach. She has been published in Black Girl Nerds, LA Weekly and Medium, is a writer for CSULB’s the Daily49er, is a managing editor for Watermark, her school’s academic literary journal and is an assistant editor at Angels Flight • literary west. She’s an activist and educator that is inspired by her family to make social change both in the classroom and beyond.