2022 is starting off really strong if film masterpieces like Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle are of any indication.
From the director and writer who brought you heartfelt anime films like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mirae, and Wolf Children comes Belle, which is part Beauty of the Beast (both the 1756 French tale & the peerless Disney animated musical), part The Matrix, and part insert-your-favourite-coming-of-age-school-drama but in contemporary Japan. Even with those comparisons and combinations, the film is a unique beast of its own.
Not Quite Old As Time
The premise is simple: after going through a traumatic experience that scarred her childhood years, 17-year old Suzu retreats to a popular virtual world called U (ie: a Metaverse that works) and finds solace in being a very popular virtual singer. She adores music and writing songs, but due to said trauma, she cannot do so in real life and instead does it behind an avatar named Belle. In the course of the film, one of her performances was inadvertently sabotaged by an avatar named The Dragon (the “Beast” in the French tale allegory), who is on the hunt by online vigilantes for “disrupting the peace”.
While telling its story and without being too on-the-nose on its delivery and message, Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Chizu did an amazing job in explaining its intricacies without too much techno-babble. Belle’s narrative also addresses the power of online anonymity, the price of fame, and the lessons of helping others out of your comfort zone & convenience. Incredibly observant filmgoers can probably see the twist and revelation coming, but its delivery is masterfully done.
Song As Old As Rhyme
The cast is charming, ranging from the likeable but closed-off Suzu/Belle to her best friend Hiro-chan who not only helps her with her Belle “VTuber” work but also acts as Suzu’s moral support through and through. The relationship between Suzu/Belle and the Dragon gradually builds into a heartwarming endeavour especially with the songs performed and composed for the show. Even in its native Japan language, the music and its lyrics are stellar and will hit the feels really hard, particularly the one big song number in the film’s third act. You can thank the combined efforts of Ludvig Forssell, Yuta Bandoh, Taisei Iwasaki, and Miho Sakai for Belle’s luscious sounds.
And then once the plot reveals its trump card in the third act, it goes for broke with a feast for the eyes and ears, and for the heart as it comes full circle. Studio Chizu showcases its talent in blending traditional 2D anime with 3D graphics seamlessly; while the real world and the cyberspace of U are very distinct in terms of colours and tone, the transitions and back-and-forth bits work well without jarring consequences.
The fact that all this gorgeous and vivid east-meets-west animation comes with a plot that walks that tightrope between charmingly funny and heartfelt serious is a testament to Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Chizu’s talent. It may be too soon to declare a film in early January a 2022 masterclass in film and animation, especially if the playing field is pretty bare at the moment. At the very least, Belle has pushed that bar incredibly high for other films of its magnitude and scale.
Final Score: 90/100