Belle – Online Humanism
Chance has it that I’ve seen three of Mamoru Hosoda’s films on the big screen, in Bucharest. I saw Wolf Children / Ookami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki (2012) in 2013, I think, at an edition of the Otaku Festival. I watched The Boy and the Beast / Bakemono no Ko (2015) in 2016 at one of the few screenings organized at Cinema la Élvire Popesco, and I saw Belle / Ryū to Sobakasu no Hime (2021) a few days ago, at the cinema, as it’s being distributed on a national level. This small progression in time also corresponds with what I hope is a gradual evolution that has benefitted Japanese animation in Romania – going from a niche interest to a large audience affair. Or maybe it’s just now that, at last, the foundation of its legitimacy outside a small bubble of fans or cinephiles are starting to be laid.
I have my reservations regarding Belle, or, rather, there are some of Hosoda’s films that I enjoy much more, and that I consider to be much more realized. It’s obviously a film made for the large audience, aimed at all ages, and so I wouldn’t ask it to be transgressive, but its aim is simplistic, if not even chicheed at times.
Still, the fact that the film is distributed in local cinemas at a national level is not something that should remain unaddressed. It’s the first time when a Japanese animation is distributed in Romanian cinemas, in several cities across the country – I wonder if it’s also not one of the few festival-fare animations that has achieved this (Belle premiered in Cannes, receiving a 14-minute-long standing ovation). It feels like an important step and I must admit that I was quite touched to hear voices such as Mamoru Miyano’s – one of the iconic voice actors of Japanese animation and a two-time collaborator of Hosoda – echoing in the cinema. This step seems very important to me and is a gesture that diversifies the contents shown by local cinemas, especially mall cinemas, where Belle is screening heavily. I hope that this production inspires more distributors to orient themselves beyond the hegemony of English-language films.
The film proposes a story that is overall cute and light-hearded, bearing teachings about (what one could call) the Internet’s healing powers, under the shape of a modern fairytale that is also a musical in disguise. Suzu, a reclusive highschooler, is invited by one of her friends to join “U” – a metaverse-style app which has created a frenzy (but also a connection) across the entire globe. On the basis of a few biometric data sets, U guesses what the “real you” is and generates Belle, Suzu’s avatar, a freckled, ethereal princess with a golden voice. We later on discover that Suzu herself is keeping this talent under wraps, as her mother’s death has prevented her from using it anymore. Belle quickly ends up charming the entire platform and becomes an othernight star, her song seemingly containing a transcendent quality to itself, which stops everyone in their tracks as they listen to it. Still, the harmony of the metaverse is disrupted once a dragon appears, hunted by the network’s police force. As the tale goes, Belle must save the beast’s heart and discover what hidden pains are making it hurt, and so Suzu and her friend set out on an adventure in search of the one who lies hidden behind the avatar – not to reveal him, but to help.
It’s not the kind of story that has never been heard of before, but Belle does reclaim some qualities when it comes to style and technique. What’s innovative about the film is not what it has to say about the Internet as a medium that bridges interhuman relationships, but the way in which it represents it. Hosoda is a great and refined practitioner of parallel worlds (which feature in most of his previous films), and manages once more to create a vibrant secondary reality that boasts its own captivating mythology. The metaverse in Belle melds a hyper-modern imaginary with some sweeter, more classical tones, in a visual buffet bursting of colorful and magical colors, such as the young floating angelically through the digital space, wrapped in flowery robes. U is not the cold, technological and robotical world that the Internet is often made to be, but a colorful splendor of imagination – where one can indeed be whomever they want to be. The director also puts the medium of animation in the service of a plastic sort of gentleness (exuberant flowers, gracious gestures, delicately flickering lights), which seem to resonate with Belle’s pure heart. The real world has an honest naturalism to it, in the sense that its aesthetic prerogatives don’t seem to be conceived as to ostentatiously contrast the exuberance of U, but functions in the same terms of a light, slightly melancholy quotidian, just like in Wolf Children. Everyone’s refuge into U is not a way of escaping a drab reality, but uses it as an accelerant of the sensitive things that we already contain within ourselves. The only thing to break the film’s spell at times is its usage of 3D animation, which might bother the fans who are much more loyal to traditional animation or to the usage of an “older” language. Still, the synthetic sensation of this moment seems to perfectly fit the modern tone which the film appeals to, and to which we all belong to nowadays. Hosoda is very creative in his speculation of the fact that our social life truly is split between reality and the online medium.
There are many elements that turn Belle into a universal film, not just its theme or the fact that it can be enjoyed by all ages, but also because its production manages to strike a visual truce between certain western traditions with Japanese ones – in the spirit of representing the Internet as a Babel Tower of Hope. Hosoda also deserves praise for the way in which he quite elegantly adapts a couple of westernized references (the dragon’s castle looks like an illustration from a European fairytale), which other Japanese directors and animations would speculate in a sensationalistic manner, without an artistic program in mind, just because “it looks fancier”. The fact that U is a world that belongs to everyone is also mirrored in the perfect, yet unexpected harmony between all of the styles and textures that Hosoda uses. The director is also good at balancing various genres, passing quite naturally from moments with comedic potential regarding teenage life (from awkward confessions), to moments in which Suzu/Belle’s voice seemingly makes our own spirit ascend, as well. Furthermore, the film’s soundtrack is quite an earworm.
Although splendid in terms of cinematography, Belle has, as I’ve mentioned before, these pedagogical tendencies that make it into an innocuous film, even though it’s not necessarily predictable. The Dragon is tamed. Salvation is possible, and all you have to do is to be your true self. The film overpasses the premise of Beauty and the Beast by a long run, even though one can read it between the lines, but the final delivered message, regarding vulnerabilities and how one should (or shouldn’t) interact with the virtual one, is not one that hasn’t been said before.
Maybe I was overcome by cynicism. Maybe the gratuitous humanism in Belle is a good thing after all, in these uncertain times, and we might all need a little bit of tenderness. It wouldn’t be bad if we were to remember that we are all connected and that, after all, behind the avatar lies a person just like any other. To be fair, if there were no Internet, I would have also never met those friends of mine who know me the way I am, and the ones who accompanied me to watch Belle,The Boy and the Beast and Wolf Children.