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Belle (2021)


U is an online world where with a bit of bio-metric data an avatar is created to represent you in this world of limitless possibility. Into this world comes Suzu who is a shy self-conscious 17-year-old high-school student. She lives in a rural village and has an awkward relationship with her father. Unsure of herself or her identity, U offers her the place to be herself. That identity is Belle through which Suzu sings. At one of her concerts, she encounters a creature, a beast, who intrigues her. This creature is looked down upon by the community in U but Belle sees something and together they undertake a journey to explore and understand who they are.

People often ask what would be in my top 10 anime features or what is my favourite animated feature and often I give some weasely words about it all depending on my mood, time of day and whether I have had coffee. That being said Summer Wars from Mamoru Hosoda would absolutely be on that list and I have a real fondness for his The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Mirai. Wolf Children I liked visually but its story failed to engage me.
 


So going into Belle I would be lying if I didn't say that I was a bit apprehensive about what I was going to get. To 'manage my expectations' I stayed clear of as many reviews as possible but was getting the sense that people were liking it. I was really hoping to completely lose myself in this film and be swept away by the sound, vision and emotion of it all. Up-front I thought was brilliant. I loved the characters, the world, the soundtrack (yes, even the songs) and the character and camera movement was exceptional. 

Of course, I could not avoid some of descriptions and trailers completely, so what I did 'know' about Belle was this idea that it was Hosoda's take on Beauty and the Beast (which was one of my favourite Disney features). Having seen it I'm not sure if that is actually a fair description. It is certainly part of the feature where we have Belle who is that 'Beauty' and we have a Beast (called Dragon) whose paths cross in U and a relationship starts to develop. For me however, there were two much more interesting storylines developing. The first being that classic story of growing up and finding who you are and creating a place in the world for yourself. The second more relevant to now than ever before is how we live with that parallel online world with its impact and influence on us.




In Belle, 17-year-old high-school student Suzu Naito (our protagonist) lives in rural Japan (Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku). Like many teens, Suzu has an awkward and at times strained relationship with her father - they pass each other in the home but never really connect or communicate. Their relationship is complicated because of the loss of Suzu's mother when she was much younger. Suzu's life revolves around travelling (or more like commuting) to school having limited social interactions, and coming home to a quiet house. 

At school, Suzu has a few friends - her childhood friend Shinobu Hisatake where the are hints of more than just friends in that shy teen way, Ruka Watanabe who is the popular girl in school, Shinjiro Chikami the over-enthusiastic sporty one and her best friend the hyper-intelligent Hiroka Betsuaku. There always seems to be something holding Suzu back from her friends and it is not just her shyness. Hiroka however invites Suzu to join the online community U, a place where you can be your true self. After signing up as Belle, creating an avatar and connecting into U Suzu arrives in a world of possibilities and suddenly find herself able to sing with her voice, shattering all her internal barriers and gaining, at least online, a newfound confidence.


Belle becomes a big hit, has millions of followers, holds concerts and that is where, as stated above, she crosses paths with Dragon, an outcast within U. Suzu becomes fascinated with Dragon and wants to know who he is and why he behaves the way he does all whilst keeping her identity as Belle a secret from those close to her and finding her way in both the on- and off-line worlds.

I have always enjoyed the look of Hosoda's films. He neatly balances beautifully realised and textured landscapes with the characters who inhabit them. Each film makes use of the technology available to create something visually pleasing and distinct from other features - you know when you are watching something from him. Belle is no exception - it is beautiful to behold. Sometimes the real (offline) world looks almost photo-realistic with its characters moving and behaving like real people. Because it felt so rooted in the physical world it became a natural place within which to explore the more human-focused elements with an art style (both character and background) that is so familiar that you get carried away with the antics on screen. It makes sense that the more serious real-world challenges or implications are explored here because that is where we would have to. 


The characters in the real world felt very much like those in Hosoda's previous works - similar lines, physical frames and mannerisms. And because of that consistent style, I could easily believe that all of Hosoda's stories take place in the same world. I really liked the designs of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto in previous Hosoda features, but the work in Belle by Hiroyuki Aoyama captures the essence of what I really liked about those (that familiarity) and makes them his own. The characters also had those slightly goofy-awkward over the top mannerisms that made some of Hosoda's previous features so much fun - they really took some of the scenes that could have been a bit twee or sickly sweet and make them much more relatable. Chikami is often featured in these scenes and was a great comic relief to the more serious Shinobu.

As with Summer Wars, Belle neatly switches between the off- and online worlds without dropping a beat in the pacing of the feature and without jarring the viewer. Within U the world is more regular, cleaner and bolder. The laws of physics do not apply here. The colours just pop on the screen, the shading is so smooth and the level of detail on the characters is amazing. With all of this, it is very clear that anything is possible in U. This change of visual style is (as with Summer Wars) used to explore different elements of the story and the characters. For me, U felt like the setting for that Beauty and the Beast element, where the more flights of fancy took place. In a world with no limits, how could you not exploit it? 

U gave our cast of characters the chance to explore and express themselves in a way that the real world could not. There they were free to be themselves behind a degree of anonymity. There they could chase their dreams, meet new people almost free from consequences because anything was possible. Belle felt free to sing, be inquisitive and bold in a way that she never would as Suzu. But actually, as Belle grows and changes so does Suzu as we jump between her different selves in the two worlds she inhabits.


Of course, comparisons will be made to Hosoda's Summer Wars (I have already done so). Some of those comparisons are fair. There are certainly elements which overlap visually and also in how the story is told. I had questions as to whether Oz (the virtual world depicted in the earlier film) has been succeeded by U? For me U managed to retain many of the charming visual details of Oz - the expansive world, simultaneous translations and widely diverse and imaginative avatars (or AS as they are called here) to name a few. I loved how because anything was possible the movement of characters felt completely unconstrained. It also brought an additional sense of fun and spectacle in some of the U-based locations. It used different art and architecture styles to show the journey the characters were on and some lovely touches to show how things are hidden in U from its members. 

Where Belle differs is that the colours are so much more vibrant, with more delicate shading effects and a level of detail on the avatars which is phenomenal - Belle's freckles for example or the iridescent costume where she first meets Dragon. The level of polish in U is so high - it is such a spectacle - it is really making the most of what digital technologies have to offer. 


The other comparison to make is to Disney features. Jin Kim (who worked on Tangled and Frozen among others) designed the character of Belle. Looking at a still image of that character and it evokes that classic Disney character aesthetic. The musical numbers also have quite a Disney feel to them with strong vocals and hooks that will come back to your mind on a regular basis! Both of these elements help to build a feature film that will have a wide audience appeal.

It is really interesting just how relevant this feature is given the Facebook-Meta announcement last year (2021) and the online universe presented in U. It really depicts an artistic version of what that online community could look like with its endless possibilities and the challenges it might bring. I am not as convinced as some as to the benefits of social media and these platforms to individuals and communities but contained within Belle is a positive and uplifting story about what such a platform *could* do and what it *might* achieve. Credit to the film it did challenge some of the entrenched views of such platforms and why people use them. (Summer Wars showed for me the potential of a malicious actor on such a platform and how communities can band together to sort it.)


Whilst Belle is full of colour and sound and vibrancy there is a dark and uncomfortable story which comes to light in the final act. It is beautifully set up and we are drip-fed information so that we are just ahead of the characters as they realise what is happening. It is a very significant tonal change (similar again to the change of gear in Summer Wars) but here I couldn't see how they were going to resolve that storyline. It felt that as this was explored the colours became more muted, the rain started and it became quite bleak. I felt very uncomfortable watching those scenes - partly because of the juxtaposition with what had come before but also because of the subject matter. It felt well handled, balancing genuine tension, rage, frustration against hope and idealism. It really worked (for me) and some of those scenes still feel fresh in my memory such was their power.

ALL IMAGES:  © 2021 STUDIO CHIZU


Words and superlatives escape me to describe Belle. Its visuals are just … wow, the soundtrack is sublime and the animation of characters is sensational. I have always liked the look and feel of Hosoda's films with a consistency of style across them and Belle is no exception. Excellent use of colours and sound, engaging character designs and a gorgeous world to set the animation in. I was reminded of all the things I liked about his previous features without just wanting to go and watch them instead. Belle is a highly polished production that blends its online and real-world seamlessly but still makes it clear to situate you as it jumps between them whilst throwing in a couple of moments where things are perhaps not perfect but all the more engaging because of it. From the opening frame, I felt comforted and safe but was in no doubt this was something new and this film delves into some pretty dark areas but handles them with sensitivity. The story though based on Beauty and the Beast felt like its own thing. 

Given the hype and reviews already out there (which I tried to avoid) I was not sure if it could live up to the expectation but it does and then some. I'm sure I could think of fault and things I didn't like but that would be childish. I loved watching Belle. It left an overwhelmingly happy memory and I want to watch it again, ideally on a large screen where it shines. 


 FORMAT: MOVIE AVAILABLE ON: CINEMA RELEASE  FROM: ANIME LIMTED [UK] GKIDS  [US]  RATING: PG [US] 12a[UK]  RUNNING TIME : 124 mins




IN A NUTSHELL:
A visual and aural spectacular telling of Beauty and Beast for the modern social media generation. Just ... wow. 



★★★★★



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*Screening arranged by Lisa DeBell from Fetch for Anime Limited*