When we meet the titular protagonist of visionary Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda’s new animated movie Belle, she is riding on the head of a humpback whale floating through the air. The whale’s body is outfitted with a series of barnacle-like speakers, blasting the upbeat pop song with Fela Kuti-esque percussion that Belle is singing along to. During an emotional peak, she thrusts out her arms as if she’s going to take flight and flowers explode from her body. There doesn’t seem to be enough pixels in the world to capture all these ideas.
Belle is broadcasting from a virtual metaverse called U, “the biggest internet society in history,” a robo-voiced narrator tells us by way of welcome. It’s a place where its 5 billion users can “come together to relax, or just have fun.” While not without its trolls and dramas, U might as well be short for utopia—it’s a place where users can take on other forms to show their true selves. The Beauty and the Beast-inspired Belle’s ultimate message of liberation by virtual means suggests a rather optimistic view of internet culture that Hosoda confirmed in an interview this week with Jezebel.
“When I look at other directors’ take on the internet, it tends to be negative—it’s almost like a dystopia,” the writer-director said in a Zoom conversation, via a translator. “But younger generations have to live with the internet. I don’t see the point of criticizing the negative side of the internet. They have to really look at how they are going to interact with the internet, how they will take advantage of it. I really think they have to look at it from more of a positive perspective. And I hope Belle is a film that does that.”
U is just one section of Belle’s purview. The movie’s IRL world concerns Belle’s alter ego, a 17-year-old high school student named Suzu, who’s quiet, socially anxious, and traumatized from the death of her mother, which occurred when Suzu was a child. Empathy is Hosoda’s strong suit—2012's Wolf Children is largely concerned with the existential angst its main characters experience as a result of their mixed-species identities—and he absolutely shines here, giving the animated Suzu more dimensions than typically seen in live action films.
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As Suzu’s profile rises in U so does the negativity she receives (one particularly ingenious touch of Hosoda’s is his representation of comments as a literal pile on, sometimes bombarding their target to the point of suppressing speech). But she’s not to worry—according to her brilliant friend Hiroka, who helps cultivate Belle’s image and mystique, “In U, stardom is built on mixed reception.” Then, when one of Belle’s performances is interrupted by a creature known alternately as the Dragon and the Beast, Belle takes another turn. Belle follows the Beast to his virtual castle and a cyber take on Beauty and the Beast ensues, with Belle attempting to penetrate a seemingly feral heart (Disney alum Jin Kim worked on Belle’s character design, which has a decidedly Disney-esque flavor). Belle’s narrative is perpetually unspooling and shifting, and its momentum gives the impression of imaginative fury, as if there are so many images and ideas in the minds of Hosoda and his collaborators that they never stop rushing out for the movie’s two-hour run time.
The movie is, naturally, more calculated than that. When Belle premiered at Cannes, Hosoda said in an interview that it “really annoys me to see how young women are often seen in Japanese animation—treated as sacred—which has nothing to do with the reality of who they are.”
“This film is based on the 18th century French story, Beauty and the Beast, and when the story was first made, the Beauty character’s potential or her depiction was quite limited because of the time,” said Hosoda. “Today, the definition of beauty has definitely changed. My take on modern beauty is someone finding their own identity through an alter ego and then becoming stronger—someone that can actually help or protect other people.”
“I have a daughter and she’s going to have to live in this society,” he continued. “I hope that society is allowing enough to see her for who she really is. So that’s how this character and my depiction of women in this character came about.”
Belle debuted in Japan a day after its July 15, 2021, Cannes premiere, but it lands on American shores with a new American dub, featuring the voice talents of Kylie McNeill, Chace Crawford, Manny Jacinto, and Hunter Schafer. I wondered what Hosoda thought of people watching his movie in a language other than its native one.
“I think languages can potentially separate people more than national borders,” he explained. “With other streaming services, it has become so easy to switch between different languages so they can watch watch it in the original language and then second time around, they can watch it in their own native language. You know, there are more ways to enjoy the same content in multiple sittings. We are living in a great time.”
While Belle was the third highest grossing film of 2021 in Japan (grossing an equivalent of about $57 million), Hosoda has yet to truly crossover in the U.S. mainstream, though that may soon change. His 2018 movie Mirai, about a toddler whose jealousy turns tyrannical and fantastical upon the arrival of his baby sister, was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, which Hosoda called “just a plain shock.”
“I just was not expecting it, but it got a lot of people to take interest in the film and also my work,” he said. “That was a great opportunity. But I mean, I don’t make my films to be nominated for awards. I make them for the fans and viewers. But I am hoping that if Belle does get nominated, it could be a good opportunity to get people talking about and facing young people’s problems or what they go through and their experiences. If it works that way, that will be wonderful.”