Another Tale as Old as Time: Belle (Hosoda, 2022) Review
I saw Belle last night. I would love to divulge my extensive and, even for me, salty interpretation of modern day, post-lockdown audiences at the cinema, but instead it would be best just to focus on the film. That I liked a lot. Having had some time, I have been able to unpick the remnants of the kernels that made for an audience failing at the whole common-courtesy thing (we must ban plastic wrappers, rattling foods or people without table manners from films immediately; it’s a crisis) and found my way to remembering that I wholly went to see and enjoy the latest Anime feature to come to the big screen.
In a small village experiencing the repercussions of economic and agricultural decline, a high schooler named Suzu struggles with major anxiety and low self-esteem and chooses to hide from the world following the traumatic loss of her mother. Her relationship with her father is distant as they both grieve in their own ways, and with the exception of a handful of friends, she escapes to a virtual-reality social media platform called U where she can, under the username Bell, hide her identity in a persona constructed from her deepest desires and consciousness and pursue what she loves most; to sing. Finding her voice in various ways, in this world, she can bare her soul through her lyrics, be the beautiful, talented classmates she envies and becomes a global sensation. It is here she encounters another lonely soul who has been ostracized by the online community due to his violence and she soon pursues him in an attempt to save him from digital backlash and himself.
Belle, or its direct translation from the Japanese title The Dragon and the Freckled Princess, is Mamoru Hosoda’s follow-up to his 2018 time-travelling toddler feature, Mirai, and long anticipated to many including myself. I mean, he’s the man behind Wolf Children, how can I not love his mind. It is a high-concept film, much like many of his films, marketed as a virtual-reality epic romance of sorts yet after seeing the film I am aware of how difficult it really is to sell the premise. You see, it’s that coming-of-age, science-fiction feature with aspects of love. Loving oneself, online bullying, domestic abuse, the social crisis, escapism through social media presence, the dependency that entails and the masks we wear to hide behind, stepping out of our comfort zones, embracing our authentic voice… there’s a lot of themes to be explored in Hosoda’s latest. He probably doesn’t nail them as effortlessly as his previous features, but there are a lot of moments to make up for it. Humour, sweetness and heart a plenty here.
I love his style, the character designs and his vision of the world is homely and yet beautiful. The quiet moments are simply a delight for the soul and eye. But that’s my 2D prejudice. That and his little nod to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time that simply had me combusting with nostalgia and hopeless feelings - you know, my usual Wednesday night. Meanwhile in U, intricate, vast and fascinating as it was, jarred me if a little in comparison to the visual style I have come to recognize from Hosoda. It’s brilliant and big; for those familiar with his work will recall Summer Wars and The Boy and the Beast set pieces and be wowed by how far he has extended his imagination to conjure a new interpretation of distant worlds.
Furthermore, as the title of the film suggests, he pays a lot of homage to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I love that. Anime and Disney meets; it’s beautiful, I get all warm and fuzzy inside. Only he uses this to explore an entirely new tale as old as time: our complex relationship with online platforms our self-worth and the abuse from within (what should be) the sanctity of those worlds and beyond. How can that damage to our our psyche manifest in a world where we can be whatever we want and who is to be held accountable in a place where no one really knows anyone. The real world is never too far away.
The soundtrack is beautiful. The orchestral scores are sweeping moving, the sort I expect to find in one of his films. Once we get past the flashier songs, the ballads are emotive and lyrically poignant, the voice cast being phenomenal. They got some good chills out of me. Hosoda clearly spent a lot of time crafting U and the music that goes on to become a sensation. The cast he assembled is brilliant; Koji Yakusho (Legend.) and Shouta Sometani have made returned for the third time to work with him, Kaho Nakamura's diverse in the leading role that demands a lot. It is often understated, voiceover work, and Hosoda knows how to get brilliant performances from his cast (a flashback comes to mind and I am in awe of the rawness of the moment). As a whole, he achieved something bigger than anything he has done before and there is still no doubt that he is one of the most unique voices in animation.
It is, however, another film by a beloved director who has missed a few steps in their tango. Having seen his other works, he established he has a way with slice-of-life. The youth dilemma is executed artfully in his hands. He has shown an acute interest in digital worlds and the possibilities of that alternative life online, incorporating this into his story of ordinary, awkward adolescence. But Belle loses its way, lacks clarity where it needed it most. But it frames an interesting protagonist who is both sympathetic and kind, a lovely cast of side characters that support her through her journey. Mostly it felt like a scene here or there would have fleshed out their roles all the more. These side characters, like many of his past films, are so unabashedly likable (here, the resident canoe champion and a digitally savvy best friend won our hearts) that I could follow a year in their life and never get bored, which is why here I wished he’d given me more of them. Embrace our protagonist’s world with these grounded yet off-beat people and it would have become all the richer for it.
A TV series of this story would have suited me even better but alas Hosoda has steered clear of that market so far. It's a big world he's chosen to construct - there are a lot of threads with plenty of potential. The technology behind U is a mystery, it's better that way, I am not one for long scenes of excessive jargon about the creation of pseudo-science. It is not that we need to know how it works but more how it does in relation to that world. A TV series would have allowed to establish the possibilities, the do's and don'ts and the merging of reality with the fantasy in the world of U. That these limits are not explored, causes confusion in more crucial scenes. The story and Hosoda's ideas deserved more breathing room, I did not doubt their existence only their execution in the long run of the plot and that breathing room within a longer-running format would have enhanced all those themes.
Weak translation to English could also have played a part in the stumbling’s of the story; I’m certain much got lost and compromised some of the finer complexities in the story. The story is far more mature than marketing let on and I went in with the barest of details. Hosoda explores a different kind of story here, something in many ways darker than he has previously made within his teen stories. To divulge would be to spoil some of the stories semi-defter scenes, and had the story decided to strip away romance those would have been all the more harrowing and powerful. But that’s it too; the love in this film is far more akin to self-love and familial love. It’s nurturing and supportive. This is perhaps why the marketing has proven a major a flaw in my own satisfaction with the film as a whole.
Hosoda has made a lot of great films in his career. Is Belle one of his best? Visually and conceptually, yes but narratively, no. It doesn’t flow entirely, but when it does it’s easy to get swept up in it all. I often felt the two halves of the story fought to be seen, possibly intentionally, but ultimately with difficulty; the reality and the online world interrupted one another. I know I was happiest in the exquisite small-town peace, the blooming clouds in a bright blue sky, the run-down school buildings, the strolls by the canals, and the harmony of the house on the hillside. When Hosoda grounds his stories in that, all the fantastical springs forth and his stories shine so brightly; sometimes, Belle did too. Still, I’m going to be generous. Belle made me feel good, it moved me a lot more than I have given credit for and even tried to do something different. It ain’t perfect. Neither am I. But, I want to see it again; it tickled my imagination, it made me think, it shooketh me. In the end it's giving voice to real issues, it's highlighting a crisis in our society and unspoken crimes all to familiar and often overlooked in the guise of a fantasy epic. There's' a bit of love, there's family, there's all those awkward feelings of being out of place that never go away, but mostly there is inspiration. I like that in a movie. I want more of that. That’s got to count for something.