During the last few years, our time online has drastically increased, and it seems this will only continue to grow. Therefore, I think it is more important than ever to ask ourselves questions about our relationship with the ever more prevalent digital world. The new anime film Belle (2021) by director Mamoru Hosoda (Mirai) is a beautiful and intriguing exploration of what it means to live in rather than with a digital world.
Set in the near future, Belle (also known as Ryū to Sobakasu no Hime, translated to The Dragon and The Freckled Princess) transports us to a digital platform called the U, a virtual reality hub and center of the social internet. Outside of U, Suzu Naito (Kaho Nakamura in the original Japanese) is a shy high school student from rural Japan. But inside U, she becomes Belle, the platform’s most popular singer and celebrity. However, as she tries to keep her identity secret, reconcile with her past, and balance her real and her digital life, Suzu is immersed in a quest to uncover the identity of a mysterious Beast who’s been terrorizing the platform.
From afar, the plot looks similar to dozens of existing films about the internet, probably most notably Ready Player One, as well as anonymous fame. In the midst of so much before it, how can Belle set itself apart from the rest? The answer immediately comes after seeing the world of U for the first time. The animation and visuals produced by Studio Chizu are astonishing. Belle presents bold character designs, bright colors, and surrealist sequences that range from giant spherical stadiums to floating, music-blasting whales. All of this uniquely captures the way the social internet is starting to feel. Like a multi-faceted landscape where everything, both good and bad, is possible.
In Belle, you don’t see pixels, polygons, or the cold aesthetic that has often been attributed to the internet. Instead, you see an eclectic and dynamic playground. The varied forms of the Avatars that characters used in the U, the ASs, remind of VRChat’s avatars. Belle’s grand concerts aren’t very different from the concert experiences often occurring in online gaming spaces like Fortnite and Minecraft. Furthermore, the film creatively portrays content moderation, online discourse, backlash, and the spontaneous creation and replication of memes.
The most interesting part of this is that, while it doesn’t look like anything we see online, it genuinely recreates how it feels to navigate life online, nicely paralleling the dual identity of Suzu and her digital superstar persona. And Belle’s choreographed song numbers perfectly channel the grandiosity of U as a second universe.
Thematically, the film comments on a wide variety of issues central to the contemporary internet. There is a clear and expected focus on authenticity and double-lives that is expected of a film with coming-of-age elements. However, the plot takes an unexpected direction that ends up presenting an interesting idea on the limits of endless cyberspace. Essentially, even Belle’s eclectic and fantastical depiction of the internet can’t solve some of the violent problems happening in the real world. And as viewers travel around U, there are ample fascinating references and depictions of some of the biggest issues surrounding the current state of digital politics. For instance, a forced reveal of identity quickly becomes a public event with multiple corporate sponsors. It’s not subtle, yet still organic and true to the plot of the story being told.
That’s not to say the real world in Belle isn’t just as engaging and beautiful to look at. We spend a lot of time seeing how the characters interact with the world around them rather than just being told. One of my favorite instances of this is, rather than just being told that Suzu lives in a rural area, we get to experience with her the long journey to her school, even noting that her bus route will shortly close. In addition, the film uses constant flashbacks to understand the backstories of characters and the way traumas impact their relationships with the world around them.
However, because of its constant alternation across time and digital space, the movie seems unfocused at times and can be a challenge for some to get all the way through it. This is especially the case when the film directly grabs entire scenes and settings from Beauty and the Beast. While they ended up being used in very creative and unexpected ways, some of these sequences linking with the French fairy-tale just don’t quite fit with the rest of the film.
Belle isn’t pixel perfect, but it’s certainly memorable. This creative and captivating fantasy tale presents a complex commentary on online spaces and our relationships with them using gorgeous animation and a lot of surprising heart.
Belle opens in theaters starting January 14. Watch the trailer here.