Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle reboots Beauty and the Beast for the internet age

The latest film from anime master Mamoru Hosoda is a fairytale transposed to an online world. It exudes the director’s characteristic sincerity, writes Callie Petch, one of the critics on this year’s LFF Critics Mentorship Programme.

25 October 2021

By Callie Petch

Belle (2021)
London Film Festival

Mamoru Hosoda – the virtuoso anime writer-director of Summer Wars (2009), Wolf Children (2012), Mirai (2018) and others – is an eternal optimist. His films aren’t blind to the heavier realities underpinning their tales of single parenthood, online gaming or family trauma, yet he always veers towards an idealised development of his topics. His films are romantic, welcoming and, especially in his more recent works, non-violent spaces where stunning animation is matched with an extremely earnest heart. It’s difficult not to be won over.

Belle, his newest feature, is the logical culmination of Hosoda’s career as a storyteller so far. Using the classic fairytale Beauty and the Beast as its base – including an homage to a key dance scene from the Disney version – Belle just as often pulls from Hosoda’s own previous work, namely Summer Wars, The Boy and the Beast (2015) and even Digimon: The Movie (2000), in its sincere depiction of an internet capable of bringing people together rather than driving them apart.

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The eponymous Belle is the online persona of high-schooler Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), a deeply shy girl who is still traumatised after the death of the mother who encouraged her to pursue a passion for music. Unable to perform in-person since, she retreats into the virtual world of ‘U’, which Hosoda visualises in artificial 3D models to contrast the traditional hand-drawn character work of the real world. Here, anonymised projections of a user’s inner strengths reside in an abstract communal space, which gives Belle the emotional distance required to perform her songs and – as a result – become an instant viral megastar.

During one of her U concerts, she crosses paths with a bitter, violent pariah of the system named The Dragon (Takeru Satoh) – Hosoda’s Beast equivalent. Spurred on by both a curiosity about his status as villain #1 for U’s sponsor-hungry moderators and a sense that he may also be harbouring some kind of trauma that informs his behaviour, Belle resolves to discover his true identity before more malicious actors can and hopefully help him work through his embittered anger.

As a result, Hosoda’s film is both about the internet and sees it as a vessel for compassionate connection. It’s a place where anonymity allows a person the confidence and power of expression they may be incapable of displaying in real life. The film doesn’t ignore or downplay the trolling and harassment that can be enabled by such anonymity, but it focuses on the scope for individuals to connect online with like-minded souls who need that shared strength to go on.

Studio Chizu and Cartoon Saloon’s visualisation of the world of U is strikingly simple. Most of the space is dedicated to the spare central zone, where users mill about in all directions like passing traffic until something catches their eye. Comment bubbles and additional commentary videos pile on top of the action as everybody either builds on or injects their two cents into the original work – whether it be Belle’s music or footage of The Dragon’s chaotic battles with the moderators. It’s a wonderfully clever picture of internet virality.

Belle (2021)

The process can be scary and overwhelming – that initial rush certainly is for Suzu. The mystery of anonymity as the internet’s new obsession has undertones of Reddit’s notorious hunt for the Boston marathon bombers. But although we see public outings and minor hazings being dished out to people wrongly suspected to be The Dragon, this is a subject that Hosoda’s self-penned screenplay mainly plays for quick montage comedy. Nobody gets hurt.

He’s more concerned with the joyous community that online life can bring than the uglier flipside we hear about day in and day out. Not for nothing are Belle’s various musical numbers lavish productions filled with space whales, glowing heart orbs that pulsate to a shared emotional energy, and flying sequences to rival those of Hayao Miyazaki.

Undoubtedly, there are cultural differences at play with this idealised interpretation of online life, especially since Japan is only just recently beginning to reckon seriously with the effects of cyberbullying that western audiences have been aware of for much longer. But with a cast of characters this entertaining, art and animation this consistently awe-inspiring, and go-for-broke emotional swings from the off, Belle’s optimistic worldview proves beguiling. 

About the LFF Critics Mentorship Scheme

Acknowledging a damaging lack of diversity in film criticism, exacerbated by a lack of opportunities for emerging critics to gain experience and have meaningful engagement with publications, the BFI LFF Critics Mentorship programme returned for a fourth year at the festival, giving a meaningful experience and opportunity to a range of talented emerging film writers.

In the aftermath of last year’s global uprisings in protest of systemic racism and in support of Black Lives Matter, now more than ever there is still the need for more tangible actions to be taken in response to racial inequality in the film industry. We are looking at how we can better serve not only Black writers, but also writers from other underrepresented communities by offering mentorship that can pave the way to future opportunities for paid work in the media.  

This year, we offered the BFI LFF Critics Mentorship programme to eight mentees, with guaranteed spaces for Black writers and writers who have a disability, impairment, learning difference or long term condition. 

The mentees were invited to experience the BFI London Film Festival as an accredited press delegate with an intensive programme over the first six days of the festival. Journalist, commentator and founder of The British Blacklist, Akua Gyamfi and journalist, former Empire Magazine editor-in-chief and author Terri White were overall mentors to each of the participants who were also individually paired with a mentor from each media partner to support them and produce work. They also had the opportunity to pitch a festival comment piece or review to for the BFI website.

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