“The next (Hayao) Miyazaki” is an accolade that gets thrown about a fair bit in the world of anime. Mamoru Hosoda, the director of Belle, is no stranger to it. However, the “next Miyazaki,” as with most such comparisons, is very reductive. Not only does it reductively reduce anime film directors down to one point of comparison (imagine comparing literally any live-action American film director with Steven Spielberg … oh wait, that’s Film Twitter), but it also ignores that all directors operate clearly within the themes and spheres that interest them. No one needs to be the next Miyazaki, but that doesn’t mean their work isn’t fabulous and definitive in its own right.
Case in point: Miyazaki’s films often touch on the need for connection to nature, for friendship, for traditional culture. His films are about remaining grounded in the simple truths and the consequences of ignoring them. Hosoda, on the other hand, is often interested in virtual spaces and is probably the best director working today that actually understands their power. He understands the contemporary spaces that influence the lives of people today, especially the young (even us geriatric millennials). The families he depicts are both found and biological. His Summer Wars, for instance, focuses on virtual families. His first film, a Digimon animation, also features some of these themes (albeit with a work-for-hire corporate IP). Belle feels like the next step and a culmination of, his past work. Already established as a creative force in his own right, Hosoda is now playing with every tool in his toolkit.
Released in Japan as The Dragon and the Freckled Princess, Belle follows a depressed young woman named Suzu Naito. When Suzu was 6, her mother died saving the life of a child who was a stranger. Suzu has never been able to make peace with this sacrifice or understand it. She barely talks to her father and, worst of all, can no longer sing due to the PTSD associated with her mother’s passing. She attends school with her best friend, Hiro, but is unable to realize her crush on childhood friend Shinobu, believing popular girl Ruka is interested in him and she’s no competition.
Then one day her life changes; Hiro introduces her to U, a utopian metaverse where one’s avatar represents a new chance at self-creation. Upon her entrance to U, Suzu (now going by Belle) discovers she can sing along with the pure joy of being able to express herself truly and openly. She becomes a viral pop star. It’s all going great before her virtual show is crashed by the Dragon – a beast-like avatar hunted across the U by other users. She decides to figure out his identity, and what results is an ode of sorts to Beauty and the Beast.
Hosoda explores how virtual spaces give people the anonymity and expressiveness to reinvent their lives. Whereas other filmmakers might make this a parable about the flakiness of the digital world, Hosoda understands that digital expression is a valid form of self and the connections we make online are just as real and meaningful as those in the real world. For many people, this is how they connect with those who understand them. As Belle, Suzu is finally able to sing again and understand what she has worth. Hosoda does not question the legitimacy of that experience.
Hosoda doesn’t close the door on reality, however, as the last parts of the film deal with the important reconciliation of our online selves with our real-life selves – not a rejection, but a merging of your experiences real and virtual as a way of self-actualization The online world might largely be a dumpster fire, but it’s also a source of untold power for people to connect and Hosoda remains steadfast in his optimism.
The interplay between Suzu and the Dragon, for instance, is one that starts in a way that’s troublesome but becomes empathetic. He’s someone she would have never met if not for the U. “Your strength is your pain,” she thinks to herself when she sees the Dragon and as she comes to understand him. Hosoda doesn’t celebrate pain though, just the power of broken people having a space to put themselves back together.
Belle would not be as powerful or moving as it would be without the music that accompanies it. Luckily you can find it on Spotify, with Belle’s songs cheekily credited to the virtual character. A team of composers makes the music – ambient and actual voiced songs – resonant and beautiful, with Hosoda himself working on the lyrics. Though not a musical, the songs in Belle serve the same functions in moments of powerful emotions for Suzu, allowing her to truly express herself. The emotional context as well as the actual songs themselves ensure these moments are transcendent and sell you on both the story Hosoda is telling and the emotional truth of the character. Let’s hope they release an LP.
The English dub here deserves special mention. English dubs are inferior to the Japanese original, but the dub produced for Belle is excellent. Of particular mention is the soundtrack; such a key part of the film translated into English is worthy of praise. Given that many of the film’s most emotional moments are tied to the expressive songs, hearing them in one’s native language really does help connect to the character and emotion. The translations are excellent, and the lead voice actor, newcomer Kylie McNeill, has a stunning voice (likewise with her Japanese counterpart).
The voice acting is excellent, with newcomer Kaho Nakamura doing a stellar job as Suzu. She sounds relatable and normal, but you can hear the despondency in her voice at the start of the film, and you can hear the life slowly creeping back in as she undergoes her journey. She manages to sell both the totally ordinary girl that Suzu is but also sells us on the emotional truth and multitudes within the character that have been ignored or repressed due to pain. It’s no easy feat given she can only use her voice to do this. The Japanese supporting cast is a mix of veterans and newcomers, but each helps the film sing (no pun intended).
The animation for Belle is stellar as well, with the 2D and 3D sections smartly used to delineate the difference between the real world and the virtual one. Each looks beautiful in its own way, from Hosoda’s wonderful realistic-yet-stylized signature character design in the 2D world to the gorgeous colours and dynamic looks of the virtual characters and worlds they inhabit.
Hosoda is not the next Miyazaki, and we’re better for it. With Belle, he’s delivered a work of great empathy and love about the power of modern life. Miyazaki’s environmentalism and old-fashioned connections will always be essential, but Hosoda’s acknowledgment and continued celebration of ad-hoc family units in our present day is just as important and valid. I can’t wait to see what he does next.