A still from Belle (2022), courtesy of GKIDS
The gorgeously animated Belle explores the consuming experience of not just having digital platforms as a part of life, but living life inside of one. Writer-director Mamoru Hosoda unveils U, an empowering virtual reality in which people become avatars and vie for popularity among millions. U is a place where anything is possible and anyone can become who they want to be, or at least, who they want to present to the rest of the world. For 17-year-old Suzu, the film’s protagonist, U is an alternate reality away from personal grief and loss. In a remarkable marriage of reality and virtual reality, the story draws out the beauty of making meaningful connections from a digital world. With hints of inspiration from Beauty and the Beast, the film feels like a cyber fairytale. The stunning animation, contrasting virtual reality with the serenity of nature’s landscapes, adds remarkable dimension to the dueling worlds at play in Belle.
The story follows high school student Suzu (Kaho Nakamura); she lives in a rural village as a shell of her former self, following a tragic event years earlier. But when Suzu joins the massive online world U, she becomes her persona Belle, a singing sensation who takes the platform by storm overnight. Belle is a transformative figure for Suzu; for one, Belle’s image encompasses an epitome of “standard” beauty and further reinforces a perfected, idealized version of self. From Suzu’s perspective, Belle mirrors the prettiest girl in her class, and amasses fans greatly outnumbering her own friends. As well, Belle’s voice in the virtual world draws from Suzu’s hidden talent in real life. U is where Suzu is able to sing the way she used to, helped by her tech wiz friend Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta) and the instantaneous love coming from millions of viewers. But not all are intent on keeping up appearances and carrying on with the show. One of Belle’s highly anticipated performances is interrupted by an avatar notoriously known as The Dragon (Takeru Satoh). The Dragon is chased out of the performing arena by vigilantes, who’ve been trying to unmask the avatar and consequentially reveal the person behind the screen to keep order in U. The Dragon and Belle cross orbits in the chase, inspiring Suzu in the real world to dig up details about this mysterious avatar and answer the many questions swirling in her mind. The journey leads to an emotional exploration of truth, the reverberating power of being vulnerable and sharing one’s self in a world full of anonymity.
Mamoru Hosoda does a wonderful job conveying the double edged sword of anonymity in the digital age. How it gives rise to cruelty without consequence, how it offers escapism for those searching for another life to exist in. On a more positive note, how it sees strangers band together to carry acts of justice, rallying around those in need of support. The film has a strong balance between all the mixed emotions from being a product of this digital world, and trying to find sources of real intimacy from behind the virtual facades that people put up. Hosada strikes a fine line between emphasizing a fantasy world and getting lost in it. With a refreshing perspective, he is actually pushing the story closer and closer to truth. The more this film unfolds, the less artificial it becomes.
Stills from Belle (2022), courtesy of GKIDS
At its core Belle is a story of compassion and selflessness in the face of struggle. It’s clear with every direction, and all roads lead to the film’s protagonist. Her traumatic past is the bridge between real life and fantasy. Belle merges not just virtual reality and real life, but also Suzu’s past and present. Her most cherished, and most painful memories, along with her hopes for the future. It’s interesting to learn more about her character through the good and bad of the online world, and through her developing a relationship with The Dragon whose identity she grows more protective of. The journey of these characters is an empowering one, about finding your voice and standing in your own truth. Suzu is able to unlock the power she holds within, and work through her grief by sharing a vulnerable part of herself. And when this moment comes in the story, it’s truly one of the most beautifully crafted scenes on film, animated or otherwise.
The teensy bit of inspiration Belle lifts from Beauty and the Beast is enough to evoke familiar imagery, but not enough where it becomes a rehashing, or overtakes the central focus of the story. Hosoda engages with many trains of thought and never resorts to the classic fairytale as a fallback. Instead, his search for something authentic and truthful in the shimmering, pixelated world of U carries this film down the road of goodwill and how such a thing may be amplified in a digital age to reach those in need from afar. Belle is a dazzling achievement with as much heart as finesse for the craft of animation. The trajectory of this story packs an emotional punch to the gut, reminding the power of human emotion in a world of ever-increasing technological advances designed to chip away at what makes us human in the first place.