Can Beautiful Music and Visuals Substitute for Substance? Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle Review
Following Sing a Bit of Harmony, Belle is the second anime musical UK theatrical release in the space of a week. So unprecedented is this development, I fear it’s some kind of harbinger for The End of Days. I won’t complain. As much as I love TV anime, it’s the movies I love to watch and write about. Belle is famed director Mamoru Hosoda’s seventh movie. Internationally, Hosoda is eclipsed in name recognition as an anime director only by Makoto Shinkai and Hayao Miyazaki. His films tend to focus on family relationships, parents and children, his own experiences as a father informing his work.
In his depiction of Belle’s fantastical virtual world “U”, Hosoda references and refines ideas from his previous filmography, dating not just back to 2009’s Summer Wars but to even 1999/2000’s two Digimon Adventure shorts. “U” is a digital metaverse where users’ real physical attributes are adapted to build a unique avatar via which they can see, hear and touch virtual objects, plus interact with other users, safe in the knowledge that their real identities are protected. It’s not a far cry from today’s social media and gaming hangouts, and apart from some vague hand-wavy explanations at the beginning, it isn’t exactly clear how this technology works, nor the specific rules involving logging in or out. This woolliness becomes a problem when the plot expects the viewer to take certain events at face value, without providing adequate context. More on that later.
First: the positives. Belle is a gorgeous movie across the board, from its earthy depictions of mundane rural Japanese school life to its contrasting, congested and chaotic virtual cityscapes. Protagonist Suzu is a shy, awkward teenage schoolgirl, mourning the accidental death of her loving, self-sacrificing mother. She’s drawn as an unremarkable adolescent, all gangly limbs, self-conscious blushes and freckles, as she attempts to fade into life’s background and to barely exist, unnoticed amongst her more conventionally attractive, outgoing classmates. While the trailers might attempt to convince otherwise, a huge proportion of Belle’s story transpires within the “real” world, and it’s this aspect that most resembles the solidly-animated family/school dramas of Hosoda’s other films.
Suzu’s initial transition from mousy nobody to stunning pink-haired avatar “Bell” (the literal English translation for “Suzu”) is one of Hosoda’s most effectively-directed scenes, magnificently capturing not only her nervous hesitation, but her stunned wonder at the vastness and potential of her new virtual world. In that moment of revelation, of shedding of self-limits, she embraces not just her new appearance, but the confidence to unshackle her suppressed vocal talents and sing of her deep emotional pain.
In a cinematic technique not dissimilar to the transition from Kansas to Oz in The Wizard of Oz, or from sooty London to animated cartoon-land in Mary Poppins, the world of U, and its denizens, are depicted in vibrant, three-dimensional CG. With a camera unshackled from the limits of 2D hand-painted backgrounds, the viewpoint swoops around Bell as she sings out her heart to the void, while other stunned onlookers (as variously oddly-shaped avatars) listen on with either wonder, or irritation. For me, it was this early scene with Bell’s powerful self-actualisation that was the emotional centrepoint of the entire movie. The gorgeous visuals, climactic music and incredible character design (courtesy of Disney’s Jin Kim) combine to produce a deeply affecting moment. I knew that from this point, I would fall in love with the character of Bell.
As a musical, there are of course multiple musical numbers interspersed throughout Belle. The best of these appear within the first few minutes. There’s the rhythmic, latin-and-techno-inflected “U” that preludes the film with an introduction to the virtual world and the real-world app that enables access. In Japanese it sounds fantastic, but I am quite frankly stunned by the incredible localisation effort made by the English dub staff. Although the version I watched was the sub, upon returning home from the cinema I immediately looked up the English versions on YouTube. In particular, “U” has a difficult, staccato lyrical cadence that I did not expect to translate so incredibly well to a language so dissimilar to Japanese. I think I may even prefer the English version.
Standout track “Gales of Song” is an incredible, emotional track with alternately hesitant then soaring lyrics, backed with deep, bowel-shaking chords reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s infamous “braaams”. Even divorced of context, this song alone is enough to bring me to tears. As Bell’s first public song, it’s an incredible, cathartic release for her — she’s no longer constrained by the limits she’s placed on herself — she can allow her music to free her, to become her true self.
Bell’s almost instantaneous internet stardom understandably freaks Suzu out, and I particularly enjoyed the increasingly bizarre online conspiracy theories about her origin (expanded later in the context of another character to hilariously ludicrous degrees). In a very real evocation of the spread of online memes, Bell’s meaning and relevance ascends far out of Suzu’s limited control — her debut song is instantly remixed and altered, along with her appearance. That Bell belongs to the world and not only to Suzu is further compounded by the fact that others alter her name, surmising that “Belle” is a better moniker as it evokes the French word for “beautiful”. Suzu’s very alternate identity is refined and repackaged for the consumption of others, yet remains for her a mixture of secret emotional outlet and erupting stress. The shy ordinary Suzu didn’t exactly set out to become a famous diva.
LIGHT CHARACTER-RELATED SPOILERS FOLLOW
Suzu’s friend and “manager” Hiroka cackles with glee at Suzu’s success, she’s the machiavellian mastermind behind Bell’s meteoric rise, and her mad laughter is one of the funniest aspects of the movie. Hiroka’s part of a larger real-world ensemble that includes Suzu’s childhood friend (and crush), the strong, silent Shinobu; popular pretty girl (and initially apparent romantic rival) Ruka; and eccentric but enthusiastic canoeist Kameshin. Their interpersonal relationships develop and resolve as a result of Suzu’s emotional growth. Shinobu, for example, feels protective of Suzu while she rejects his attention out of a misplaced sense of inadequacy. As she grows in confidence, Suzu resolves the friendship in a refreshingly non-romantic way.
For a movie that so blatantly references the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast (right down to taking the main character’s name, and including a less-of-a-homage-more-a-copy-paste ballroom scene), the overall theme is not so much one of romance but of moving on from self-sacrifice and recognising self-worth. Although Suzu has a crush on her male childhood friend, the only romantic plot with any significant payoff is that of two peripheral characters. There’s a particularly funny scene where Suzu attempts to mediate between two completely smitten goofballs with no idea how to communicate that received howls of laughter from the audience.
HEAVY CHARACTER-RELATED SPOILERS FOLLOW
Even the central Beauty/Beast relationship doesn’t develop quite how one might expect, considering the source of the homage. For great swathes of the film, I think you’re meant to believe that the violent, monstrous online “Beast” who crashes Bell’s concert is meant to be Suzu’s suspiciously quiet crush Shinobu. If that had truly been the case, then it would have cheapened and shrunk U’s supposedly enormous online world of five billion users. Instead, his identity is in some ways surprising, in other ways entirely predictable. Who else is likely to be an antisocial online troublemaker who breaks and ruins everything he touches, acting out his frustrated anger on other members of the internet community? Who else but an edgy 14-year-old boy? You’ve got to credit Hosoda for sticking to the realism.
It’s this “Beast” plotline that’s central to my frustrations with Belle. Stunning visuals and gorgeous music notwithstanding, the plot is… lacking, to say the least. It feels undercooked, ill-considered and incomplete. The juxtaposition of the angelic, inspiring Belle with the hated, misshapen Beast is certainly effective — one universally loved, the other reviled and hunted. When the Beast’s identity is finally revealed, as Kei, an abused teenager doing his best to protect his (possibly autistic?) younger brother from an intemperate father, I thought it would be interesting, and potentially emotionally devastating. The single incredibly effective scene from this plotline is when Suzu and Kei first converse as themselves over video chat. It’s awkward, it’s terrifying. Kei berates Suzu over her desire to help, because he’s suffered the platitudes of powerless do-gooders before, and been disappointed. “You can’t do anything, just go away,” he says. And in that moment, we feel his hopelessness. What exactly can Suzu, a teenage girl do to make his life better?
HEAVY ENDING SPOILERS — DON’T READ IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN BELLE
To his detriment, Hosoda doesn’t provide a compelling answer, and it leads me to question what the entire point of this movie’s story is. Suzu’s decision to forego her avatar and sing in U as herself in order to gain Kei’s trust… it’s something of a galaxy brain moment, to be charitable, even if the subsequent scene is evocative and beautiful (though a little cringeworthy, to be fair, when everyone starts singing along). Anyway, it seems to work as Kei speaks to her again, only for Evil Father to immediately revoke his internet privileges, truly the worst punishment ever suffered by an adolescent.
Suzu runs away to cross the entire country to track Kei down to do… something. She’s not exactly sure what, and I’m not entirely convinced Hosoda really knew where he was going with this either. Suzu finds Kei and his brother, hugs them, which is nice, then she stands up to their horrible dad who threatens to punch her… then doesn’t. He quivers, falls over, whines, then runs away. Is that it? I thought. Suzu sustains a minor bleeding scratch on her face for interfering in a violent man’s domestic abuse of his kids. I found myself wishing Hosoda hadn’t pulled his punches and actually let Kei’s father strike Suzu more definitively. Yes, that would have been horrifying, but having him just sort of crumple because a little girl stood up to him was laughably unlikely. So I suppose Suzu’s example somehow inspires Kei to stand up for himself or something? It isn’t really clear, and the storyline just ends there… Yes, it’s emotional, but it feels empty. Nothing has changed other than Suzu has proved she has just as much of a self-sacrificing streak as her dead mother. At least she heals her relationship with her dad, I suppose.
This plot messiness is further compounded by the aforementioned woolliness in how the world of U functions. This isn’t some Sword Art Online shit where people are trapped in a virtual world, so when the hilariously on-the-nose guardians of online justice attempt to capture and forcibly unmask Kei and Suzu online, why don’t they just rage-quit like any other immature teenage gamer faced with a situation outwith their control? What power do these self-appointed online vigilantes have when faced with the mighty “off” button? I can’t take these “bad guys” seriously, they’re nothing more than puffed-up forum admins drunk on their limited privileges.
Terminal plot messiness notwithstanding, Belle is still an incredible achievement, with warm, believable characters, complex and evocative music, and a mesmerising virtual fantasy world. It’s a shame that the underlying dark tones are so underdeveloped. Hosoda’s films have never been particularly strong on plot, and I wonder if he could work wonders with a more daring co-writer in future. If it comes to a battle of the anime musicals, I vastly preferred the funny robot girl musical anime Sing a Bit of Harmony. Although it didn’t have the enormous budget and resources of Belle, I felt it had a more interesting story. When it comes to music though, while Sing a Bit of Harmony’s music was very good, I wonder if Belle’s has more staying power, particularly Gales of Song.
When both musicals eventually release on blu-ray, I fully intend to watch them again, in English this time. I wonder what my wife (who is more versed in musical theater than I) will make of them? She tends to be much more critical of anime, so perhaps I’ll need to revisit these reviews then. Until then, I think I’ll have a look back at Hosoda’s other movies, and hopefully write a retrospective about them soon.
Written and directed by: Mamoru Hosoda
Music by: Taisei Iwasaki, Ludvig Forssell, Yuta Bandoh, Miho Sakai
Produced by: Studio Chizu
Japanese cinematic release: July 16th, 2021
UK cinematic release: February 4th 2022
Runtime: 124 minutes
Language: Japanese with English subtitles (dub also available)
BBFC rating: 12A