The way animation has been able to compete against live action in the past couple of years serves to cement the fantastic flexibility of the medium and its ability to tell all kinds of stories. In a way, that feels pretty effortless. Japanese animation, more than any other, shows that the medium can adapt itself to tell stories for the whole family, for teens, adults, and even old timers, all at the same time, without losing its magic.
Among the many masters of the genre, we find, of course, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli. The pair made their names by creating some of the most beautiful films ever. However, with Takahata’s death and Miyazaki coming closer to a real retirement, the new generation has been having a hard time writing their own names on the concrete. Some names have been floating around, such as Makoto Shinkai, who has created a very interesting body of work that defines him as a new voice in the medium, despite his track record being spotty at best. But of the new directors going around, Mamoru Hosoda is the one who can truly say he is one of the new masters of the medium.
His new film, Belle, certifies that he is here to stay. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
Belle is written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda and produced by Studio Chizu. The company has produced all of Hosoda’s films since 2012’s Wolf Children. The film tells the story of Suzu, a teenager who, after suffering a terrible incident in her life, falls into depression. Until she gets inside U, a second-life metaverse app, where everybody can be someone else and start their life anew. Inside this metaverse, Suzu will get into a fantastic adventure involving a terrible monster as well as her newfound celebrity thanks to the amazing songs she performs inside U.
Belle is a combination of many things. For starters, it is a modernization of the classic Belle and the Beast fairy tale, but with a digital era twist that makes the story more relevant to younger audiences. It is also a coming-of-age story that deals with suffering and mourning and deals with this subject in a very effective way. The movie deals with subjects such as child abuse, love, isolation, depression, and it even throws an idol element in there for good measure. On paper, so many ideas, themes, and elements should not mesh, especially in the context of a metaverse that extrapolates what is happening in our lives and social media and takes it to the next level. Nevertheless, the film manages to balance all these elements and creates a powerful emotional story in the process.
Belle has a lot in common with Hosoda’s previous film, Summer Wars. The color palette and overall aesthetics are almost the same. It becomes clear that Hosoda has a lot of interest in how social media and the new internet technologies are shaping the way people interact with each other. It is really compelling to see an artist tackle this kind of subject in such an imaginative way. Especially in animation, as it makes it possible to create cyberspace in a way that would not be possible using real actors.
The Belle in the Beast element of the piece might be the shallowest, and yet, the power of the story doesn’t really fade. All the scenes inside the metaverse are outstanding, and they have an excellent variety. Going from potent fighting sequences to digital concerts where the character of Belle, just like a real idol, drags millions of fans to see her perform some really beautiful songs. The production design is exceptional, and it isn’t hard to see that inside the metaverse, the main character’s design transforms into something more in line with Disney’s character design. It is an elegant nod.
The real world scenes are just as impressive. The environmental work is just delightful, and the countryside town, where most of the story takes place, comes to life as a beautiful place to live. It is quiet, calm, and yet the atmosphere of nostalgia and melancholy makes itself present in each frame. Character design doesn’t vary much from the rest of Hosoda’s work, but it remains top quality.
Taisei Iwasaki, Ludwig Forssell, and Yuta Bandoh do an amazing job with the music. The film makes it an important element in the story, as a form of expression and freedom for the main characters, and it is nice to see this group of talented musicians taking their roles seriously. Towards the end, the power of the music is such that it will make some people cry. There’s no doubt about it.
Belle is a masterpiece. This is the kind of powerful and bold animation feature that needs to receive accolades in the coming awards season. There’s so much emotion and high craftsmanship here that the movie cannot contain it. There’s an open discussion if this or Wolf’s Children is Hosoda’s best work, but as it is, Belle stands on top, without a doubt, as the best animated film of the year.