Mamoru Hosoda’s ‘Belle’ Paints an Immersive Experience of Fairy Tale Life in the Metaverse

As technology advances we as humans are increasingly living double lives. There’s our existence in the real world of flesh and blood and then there’s the reality we create for ourselves in the digital world. Mamoru Hosoda’s “Belle” evokes this situation with a rapturous take on “Beauty and the Beast.” Hosoda’s approach is that of a grounded fairy tale. Much of it feels fantastic yet there is scarred human depth rooted in everyday life. For many, the internet is the cyber engine of our modern world, while for others it’s an escape from self-loathing. “’Beauty and the Beast’ is a very interesting story and I was always fascinated with the Beast,” Hosoda tells Entertainment Voice. “He has a duality, a very violent exterior and very kind heart. I think there is a similar duality in our society going on now with the internet. We all have two sides. There is an online projection of ourselves, if you will, and they are the same but can feel different in some ways.”

Living such an existence is Suzu (voiced by Kylie McNeill in the English-dubbed version), a reserved Japanese high school student who feels like an outsider. She has been traumatized since childhood after her mother drowned while trying to save another child during a storm. Now as a teenager, Suzu notices how most of her classmates are caught in the whirlwind of a popular new social media space called U, where users can escape into new, cartoonish personas and have complete freedom. The appeal is irresistible and Suzu joins U, taking on the identity of Belle, a pink-haired, ravishing singer who entrances U’s billions of followers with her performances. Digital domains bring their own brand of bullying with anonymous naysayers, but Belle has enough fans to keep her feeling the joy of fame. When one of her concerts is interrupted by a horned, sharp-fanged creature called “The Dragon,” who has deadly fighting skills, Belle is intrigued. She becomes determined to find out who this beast is and what drives his rage, even as U’s security forces also try to track him down.

“Belle” is in the tradition of great anime films like Rintaro’s “Metropolis,” which don’t adapt a classic premise but instead expand or reinvent it. It doesn’t follow the basic structure of “Beauty and the Beast,” it just borrows the basic premise of a unique girl who meets someone entrapped in a monstrous figure. The Dragon isn’t cursed, he has chosen to be this roaming menace inside U, wrecking digital havoc and taking down the system’s guards. Suzu likewise has chosen her alter ego, because it provides escape from the curse of being made fun of at school, or feeling lesser than the popular girls. “We tend to think of the current reality we occupy as the only one,” says Hosoda, who tends to explore more personal themes about memory and family in his films. His 2018 film “Mirai,” about a Japanese boy dealing with the arrival of a new baby sister, was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar.  “I believe the internet has grown to a point where it has become another reality in and of itself. It allows people to show more sides which is what makes it very interesting to me. Maybe through the internet you discover someone is actually quite kind or maybe you discover the bad side and the internet brings it out. Belle is a very shy and introverted protagonist. If you look at this character within our current, present reality that we occupy, just by looking at her exterior you might think, ‘oh that’s all she is.’ But on the internet there’s this whole, completely different side that you perhaps would not have realized. There are perhaps a lot of people right now feeling low self-esteem and loneliness, and then there are these qualities that the internet can bring out.”

That sense of a parallel world is what gives “Belle” contrasts that work so well. In the real world Suzu’s only close friends are Hiro (Ikura in the original Japanese and Jessica DiCicco for the dubbed version), who essentially becomes her accomplice and content producer, and Shinobu (Ryô Narita in the original Japanese and Manny Jacinto for the dubbed), a childhood friend she harbors feeling for that can never be expressed properly. Around school the popular girl is Ruka (Tina Tamashiro in the original Japanese and Hunter Schafer for the dubbed), who seems wonderfully confident while hiding a quirky insecurity about one of her crushes. In U all looks like an electronic nirvana, even its cavernous spaces and massive screens projecting comments and characters. Belle floats like some ethereal vision and the Dragon zooms and flies while destroying opponents. The music by Ludvig Forssell and Yuta Bando finds a lush bridge between the romantic flourishes of a film score and the modern sounds of pop. 

It was the music that first pulled in Kylie McNeill, a musician making her feature film debut voicing Belle, who is originally voiced by Kaho Nakamura in the Japanese version. “In the call backs I got really into the Japanese soundtrack because it’s gorgeous. I also became a fan of Kaho Nakamura, who voices Belle in the original,” McNeill tells Entertainment Voice. “When I was cast I thought, ‘ok, first of all, this is a huge responsibility and second, I don’t want to copy Kaho or nothing like that. I don’t know how I did it, but I’m glad it came across apparently (laughs).” Unlike what one gets in a Disney film, the music and songs in “Belle” aren’t designed as catchy set pieces. They are expressive performances by Belle to evoke the sadness and loneliness inside Suzu. In the real world she rarely has the confidence to sing and cowers whenever asked to. In U, hiding behind the gorgeous veneer of Belle, Suzu can let her voice soar. “To see your voice come out of a beautiful anime princess riding towards you on a whale is an experience in itself,” says McNeill, “I think it was drawn by Jin Kim. It’s not like I look at it and go, ‘oh you can’t see all the work I’ve done because that’s not my face.’ No, it was an amazing experience.”

“What comes first is always the story,” says Hosoda when discussing the marriage of visual brilliance with narrative in “Belle.” Elegant, rugged takes on a real Japanese city contrast with the futurism of U, while the Dragon’s hideaway castle is a gothic space full of baroque flourishes and shimmering stars in a digital night sky. “With ‘Belle,’ because there’s this duality I wanted to be conscious of contrasting two different themes. There’s the real world where Suzu exists and the virtual world of U. If the real world looks very realistic then U has to be hyper realistic. I think oftentimes directors, when they depict the internet it’s easy to fall into the trap of painting this very dystopian image of the internet or technology where it’s this big evil thing that strips us of our humanity. I think this is more our massive resistance to change happening all around us. To design U I worked with a very young architect based in the UK named Eric Wong. He was this interesting, hidden talent who we found on the internet. This is appropriate because ‘Belle’ is about talent blooming in the internet.” Darker than U is the harsh reality of Suzu’s emotional paralysis or the sad truth behind the Dragon’s identity. 

“Belle” should be seen on a large screen where its images are given the proper canvas to breathe. Like much great anime, it’s also a striking example of how animation is treated as a serious art form in other countries where adult themes are comfortable next to fantasy. There is a moment in the film where Belle sings an anthem about perseverance that inspires legions of other digital avatars to glow like lighters at a concert. The impact is as emotionally stirring as anything in a recent American animated production. Hosoda has used an art form to poetically capture the emotional state of a society walking through a world dominated by technology. “The newer younger generations are born into an age where they have to coexist with the internet,” says Hosoda, “So there’s no point in painting such a dark and dystopian image of this thing with which they have to coexist and grow up in. So I wanted to show through animation something with so much possibility.”

Belle” releases Jan. 14 in theaters nationwide.