Suzu is a shy high school student living in a rural village. For years, she has only been a shadow of herself. But when she enters “U”, a massive virtual world, she escapes into her online persona as Belle, a globally-beloved singer.
‘Belle‘, the latest movie from Japanese animation studio ‘Studio Chizu’ is a sci-fi fantasy heavily based on the tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, putting a modern spin on the ‘tale as old as time’ (come on, I couldn’t miss that one!). It tells the story of a shy young country girl called Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), who has never really recovered from her mothers tragic death as a child. She’s distant from most of her classmates at school, but discovers an escape in the digital world of “U”, a place where people can transform themselves into someone else and live a different life from their one in the real world. She adopts the name ‘Bell’, the English translation of her own name, which soon becomes ‘Belle’ when her singing talents within U generate a lot of attention.
‘Belle’ deals with similar themes to many Japanese anime movies – teenage alienation, tragic pasts and a longing for connection, but it does so in a fresh and innovative way, with the world of ‘U’ acting as an escape where people can truly be themselves without caring about what people would think in the real world. The world of ‘U’ is designed as if a million TikTok screens converged on a million Twitter accounts and it can be a little daunting at first, but as ‘Belle’ progresses it becomes its own place and the attraction to the characters within the film becomes clear. As the title and synopsis suggests, this is inspired by ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and this takes the form of a character within the virtual world known as the ‘dragon’ or the ‘beast’, who is ultra powerful and makes his entrance by ruining one of Belle’s in-world concerts. Belle is intrigued by the Beast and wants to find out more about him, taking her on a dual journey – one of connection within ‘U’ and one of detective work in the real world to find out his real identity, helped by her resourceful friend Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta).
Along the way the film explores how the virtual world is both a means of allowing Belle to be herself, yet in doing so providing a false view of who she really is – it’s as smart a take as I’ve seen on the duality of the lives we lead online and in real life and how they sit uncomfortably alongside one another. ‘Belle‘ can be a little dense at times with multiple story elements playing out at once, and alongside the in your face visuals it can be quite challenging, but underneath it all is a movie with a lot of heart and a lot to say about learning to love yourself and coming to terms with who you are. I think the conclusion does lean somewhat on the audiences goodwill for the characters to swallow some implausible developments, but I was mostly there by that point and was happy to go along for the ride. Director Mamoru Hosoda has created a thrilling new take on the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ legend that transports it into a setting that reflects the world we live in today, and for fans of his work or Japanese anime in general, there is much to love here.
Directed By: Mamoru Hosoda
Starring: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh, Koji Yakusho, Lilas Ikuta, Ryo Narita, Shota Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Toshiyuki Morikawa and Fuyumi Sakamoto