When we meet the main character in the visionary Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda’s new animated film Belle, she rides on the head of a humpback whale floating through the air. The whale’s body is equipped with a series of jewelery-like speakers that blow up the optimistic pop song with Fela Kuti-like percussion, which Belle sings along to. During an emotional climax, she sticks her arms out as if she wants to escape, and flowers explode from her body. It does not seems to be enough pixels in the world to capture all these ideas.
Belle broadcasts from a virtual metavers called U, “the largest Internet community in history,” a robo-voice tells us as welcome. It’s a place where its 5 billion users can “get together to relax or just have fun.” Although it is not without its trolls and dramas, U may just as well be an abbreviation for utopia – this is a place where users can take other forms to show their true selves. That Beauty and the beast-inspired Belle‘s ultimate message of liberation by virtual means suggests a rather optimistic view of Internet culture, as Hosoda confirmed in an interview this week with Jezebel.
“When I look at other directors’ attitudes towards the Internet, it tends to be negative – it’s almost like a dystopia,” the author-director said in a Zoom interview via a translator. “But younger generations have to live with the internet. I do not see the point in criticizing the negative side of the internet. They really need to look at how they want to interact with the internet, how they want to take advantage of it. I really think they should look at it from a more positive perspective. And I hope Belle is a film that does that. ”
U are only a part of Belle‘s area. The film’s IRL world is about Belle’s alter ego, a 17-year-old high school student named Suzu who is quiet, socially anxious and traumatized after her mother’s death, which took place when Suzu was a child. Empathy is Hosoda’s strong point – 2012’s Wolf children is very preoccupied with the existential anxiety its protagonists experience as a result of their mixed arts identities – and he absolutely shines here and gives the animated Suzu more dimensions than one typically sees in live action movies.
As Suzu’s profile rises in the U, the negativity she receives increases (a particularly ingenious touch by Hosoda is his representation of comments as a literal pile on, sometimes bombarding their targets to the point where they suppress speech). But she should not worry – according to her ingenious friend Hiroka, who helps cultivate Belle’s image and mystery, “IU is star status built on mixed reception.” So, when one of Belle’s performances is interrupted by a creature known alternately as the Dragon and the Beast, Belle takes another turn. Belle follows the Beast to his virtual castle and a cyber-thank you Beauty and the beast follows where Belle tries to penetrate into a seemingly wild heart (Disney alum Jin Kim worked on Belle’s character design, which has a decidedly Disney-like flavor). Belle‘s narrative is eternally uplifting and changing, and its propulsion gives the impression of imaginative rage, as if there are so many images and ideas in the minds of Hosoda and his collaborators that they never cease to rush out of the film’s two hours of playing time.
The film is obviously more intended than that. When Belle premiered in Cannes, Hosoda said in one interview that it “really annoys me to see how young women are often seen in Japanese animation – treated as saints – which has nothing to do with who they are.”
“This film is based on 18th-century French history, Beauty and the beast, and when the story was first made, the potential of the Beauty character or her portrayal was quite limited due to time, ”Hosoda said. “Today, the definition of beauty has definitely changed. My bid for modern beauty is for someone to find their own identity through an alter ego and then become stronger – someone who can actually help or protect other people. “
“I have a daughter and she will have to live in this community,” he continued. “I hope society allows enough to see her for who she really is. So that’s how this character and my portrayal of women in this character came about.”
Belle debuted in Japan a day after its premiere in Cannes on July 15, 2021, but it lands on American shores with a new American dub, featuring voice talents from Kylie McNeill, Chace Crawford, Manny Jacinto and Hunter Schafer. I wondered what Hosoda thought about people watching his film in a language other than its own language.
“I think language can potentially separate people more than national borders,” he explained. “With other streaming services, it’s become so easy to switch between different languages so they can watch it in the original language and then the second time, they can watch it in their own native language. You know there are several ways to enjoy the same content in several sessions. We live in a fantastic time. ”
While Belle was it third highest-grossing film of 2021 in Japan (earning an amount equivalent to about $ 57 million), Hosoda does not yet have a real crossover in the US mainstream, though that may soon change. His film from 2018 Mirai, about a young child whose jealousy becomes tyrannical and amazing at the arrival of his little sister, was nominated for an Oscar for best animated film, which Hosoda called “just an ordinary shock.”
“I just did not expect it, but it got a lot of people interested in the film and also my work,” he said. “It was a great opportunity. But I mean, I’m not making my films to be nominated for awards. I’re making them for fans and viewers. But I hope that if Belle being nominated, it could be a good opportunity to get people talking about and seeing the young people’s problems or what they are going through and their experiences. If it works that way, it will be wonderful. ”