Belle Review: Hosoda’s latest is a visually stunning and deeply emotional cinematic must-see
After garnering immense praise and an Oscar nomination in 2018 for Mirai, director Mamoru Hosoda returns with another deeply personal anime fantasy adventure that mixes reality and fantasy – Belle.
Like Mirai, Belle is a coming-of-age story that takes inspiration from Beauty and the Beast to tell the story of Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura/Kylie Mitchell) – a socially anxious teen who suffers greatly from her mother’s death when she was young. In the real world, Suzu finds herself ignored by most of her classmates because of how quiet and distant she is and is unable to sing like she used to because of her mother’s death. However, through a popular virtual world known as “U,” Suzu finds her voice as her avatar Belle and garners immense recognition for her songs that makes her real life more complicated. Throughout Suzu’s sudden stardom, her two worlds begin to blend as she’s pulled into the conflict-filled world of online culture and the mystery behind a seemingly dangerous avatar known as “beast” (voiced by Takeru Satoh/Paul Castro Jr.).
Belle’s animation is absolutely stunning on multiple levels for its incredible depth and ambition. The distinct visual difference between the real world and U works incredibly well in establishing what they represent for Suzu. The real world basically looks like most modern anime films with a slightly bleaker look that fits with Suzu’s dour mindset and feelings while the world of U is vast, endless, and filled with creative avatars that match their users and bring out what isn’t seen in them in the real world. Any time the film enters U, it genuinely feels like you’re being transported to a whole new world. Hosada utilizes U’s environment well to have some fast-paced action with the beast and give some Beauty and the Beast inspired imagery an unforgettably beautiful anime look.
It’s really great that Belle is currently getting the larger theatrical run that it’s getting because it’s truly a cinematic experience on every front. The animation is some of Hosoda’s most ambitious visuals to date and works really well in visually elevating the story. The original songs are immaculate and full of heart. The singing voice of Nakamura and Mitchell is amazingly powerful and plays a big role in Belle’s finale being an emotional tear-jerker. Belle really deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible because it amplifies so many of its best elements and tells a story that’s equally ambitious – maybe a little too ambitious at times.
Hosoda definitely tries to do a lot with Belle’s story and can’t always create a cohesive experience. The film struggles to transition between its acts so while its themes can be distinct, it does feel like Belle is three films in one. Belle starts out as an intriguing depiction of online discourse and stardom, then let’s its Beauty and the Beast inspiration take complete control, and then just suddenly turns into a dark and personal story about the masks we wear online. Because of this, it can be tough to grasp where things are exactly going in Belle, but it’s themes and central story of Suzu’s personal journey manage to land really well.
The way that Suzu’s rise as Belle is captured showcases the discourse of online opinions and how they can create emotional damage that leaves unseen scars and bruises. The way that these dialogue bubbles consume the screen at times to represent the first-take opinions from the world are very effective in how accurate they feel and it’s interesting how this comment culture is equally felt in Suzu’s real world social life through a horde of classmates watching and commenting on what’s happening around them. Belle definitely shows the dangers and damage that mass commenting can have and the heavy price of stardom in the online era.
Even when Belle isn’t exactly transitioning its story all that well, Suzu’s central story arc is maintained excellently throughout and contains a lot of raw emotion that’s easy to connect to. The complexity of Suzu’s arc makes a lot of what Belle is trying to achieve thematically work. Her experience in U not only fleshes out the issues of mass online commentating, but also delves into people using online profiles and avatars to hide what’s afflicting them – especially when it comes to the final act that sees her trying to help the beast. It’s actually surprising how dark and real Belle can be, but it ultimately helps make Suzu confronting her trauma as well as others’ immensely powerful.
Personally, a story hasn’t cut this deep since A Silent Voice as Suzu slowly confronting her grief and resentment towards her mother dying to save a stranger has some compelling emotion behind it. It genuinely hurts to see her hit low points, but equally feels gratifying to see her build herself up enough to help someone else in need. The entire final act is just masterful in how it not only gives Suzu the strength to find her voice but also help someone close to her. Suzu’s story makes Belle the best kind of emotional rollercoaster that anyone could ask for and the depth of its story and themes allows it to create some emotional impact and ideas viewers can take into the real world.
Belle is another great anime film from Hosoda that’s endlessly ambitious in both its stunning animation that’s purely cinematic and its personal story that’s full of incredible emotion and strong themes about online discourse and finding your voice that are inspirational and impactful.