Directed by Mamoru Hosoda
Starring (Japanese Sub/English Dub): Kaho Nakamura/Kylie McNeil, Takeru Satoh/Paul Castro Jr., Lilas Ikuta/Jessica DiCicco, Ryo Narita/Manny Jacinto, Toshiyuki Morikawa/Chase Crawford
Mamoru Hosoda has been making captivating sci-fi teen dramadies since the mid-2000s. His films, most notably The Girl who Leapt through Time and Mirai, make him anime’s answer to John Hughes. Belle is his latest film, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021 to a 14-minute standing ovation. It stands at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and 83/100 on Metacritic.
I recently catalogued all my posts and realized that, while I say that I review anime and animation, I haven’t done a post about them since April!
I’m fixing that by making this month…
I’ve only seen a couple of Hosoda’s films, so I wanted to check more of his projects off my list. I chose Belle because my friend saw it in theaters this January and loved the art.
Suzu is a plain-Jane teen girl who’s socially paralyzed by anxiety. She wants to ask out her elementary-school crush, Shinobu, but he’s too brooding and attractive. She wants to be friends with Ruka, a cheery saxophone player that would score Homecoming Queen if she lived in America. She wants to be as outgoing and driven as Shinobou’s bestie Kamishin. Most of all, though, she wants to sing again.
Suzu is a prodigious singer/songwriter, and her mother helped foster that talent before dying while trying to save a drowning child. Traumatized by the tragedy, Suzu vomits whenever she sings out loud.
Depressed and fed-up with the status quo, Suzu joins “U,” a social media app that copies a person’s biometrics and hijacks their vision, syncing them into a virtual world.
In a typical A.I. move, Suzu gets tagged incorrectly on an Instagram post, so “U” thinks that Suzu is Ruka, the popular band geek. Suzu then becomes Bell, a gorgeous avatar who can do and be everything Suzu can’t. As a result, Bell becomes an Idol sensation, giving concerts in a stadium egg that looks like if HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired Lady Gaga’s Born This Way album.
During one such concert, a “beast” crashes the party, hunted by corporate-sponsored “justice vigilantes.” The beast kidnaps Bell so that he can escape, then takes her to a secret digital scape known as “The Castle.” There, he–
Was that too much plot? Too bad, because that was only the first 30 minutes.
I was not expecting to draw comparisons to Tombstone in an anime review, but my criticism is the same. Belle‘s emotion, catharsis, and world-building salvage this movie, but its sprawling vision leaves too many story nooks and crannies left unexplored. So many plot threads are left dangling while questions and implications about the world of “U” are proposed (re: the aforementioned vigilante justice system and hijacking of users’ vision), then never come into play.
One solution would’ve been to make Belle a shorter, more streamlined film. By pruning some of the side details and stories, the movie would’ve become a more satisfying viewer experience. That said, this film is rich with detail and atmosphere; sacrificing that would’ve led to heart-wrenching edits, and the film could’ve lost some of its captivation.
Another solution would’ve been to make Belle a six-to-eight episode miniseries. Because television anime solely exists in 30-minute blocs, this would’ve given the project a three-to-four hour runtime–enough for Hosoda to fully capitalize on the plots laid during the setup of the film. That, however, would’ve meant a massive reduction in budget, hamstringing the beauty of the production. Additionally, an anime so short wouldn’t fly with Japan’s current TV scheduling needs. Belle would’ve been stretched to 12 episodes, inviting a host of new story problems.
Frustrating as it is, Belle can only be what it is: A good film that I want to be great.
I believe that most viewers can look past this film’s flaws and focus on its voice. There is so much to love about this movie–its relatable teen characters, its earnest look into grief and abuse, and its Disney inspired digital designs (the film had two “Disney Renaissance” animators as consultants)–that many lingering issues can be ignored.
What cannot be ignored, however, is the sloppy audio work. While the English actors gave admirable performances (McNeill especially), the song lyrics sound broken and syllabically stilted. The result is beautiful songs marred by subpar translation. Additionally, the audio sync doesn’t match Bell when she sings, leading to noticeable lip reading. This issue certainly wasn’t because of my TV because the dialogue scenes were all synced properly.
While watching Belle in an English dub may be more palatable for younger viewers or people who don’t usually watch foreign films, the sound issues are non-existent in the original Japanese audio. Watching Belle with subtitles is the interface with which this film should be seen.