Suzu is a high school student who, following a family tragedy, typically spends her days isolated and listless. One day, she enters “U,” a virtual world of 5 billion members on the Internet. There, users live through an Avatar which is automatically generated based on their biometric information. Suzu is stunned that her Avatar is a beautiful young woman called Belle. Moreover, as this alternate personality, Suzu finds the resolve to sing again, and soon becomes a world-famous celebrity online. Belle encounters another user in “U” known as Beast, who though volatile, Suzu is convinced is more than meets the eye.
In ‘Belle’, the world of U is immediately, succinctly and clearly contextualised. In fact, the above synopsis probably makes it sound more complex than it really is. Another aspect of the feature that’s immediately apparent is how beautifully animated and cinematic it is. It’s no wonder it was accepted into Cannes, and believe this reviewer when they say, don’t wait to stream it – ‘Belle’ needs to be seen on the big screen.
Directed by Mamoru Hosoda (who was also behind the Oscar-nominated ‘Mirai’), ‘Belle’ also powerfully and concisely depicts the depression of its protagonist, and her disconnection from the world, through the use of montage. As well as being a touching reflection on grief, the animated feature also provocatively reflects on the nature of online popularity – how quickly it can evolve, and how online hate is as frequent as adoration.
It examines how easy it is to fake identity online – and yet, information about people you’ve never met before is quite obtainable. In this contemporary digital landscape, heroes don’t just become villains, the reverse happens as well. ‘Belle’ works through these themes in a way that moves the viewer, but you also have to be willing to strap in for the melodrama of the genre (anime often features emotional, hormonal teenage characters, who sob big animated tears and think that everything that happens is a crisis).
It’s an intriguing modern take on the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ fairy tale, told through a highly creative visual design. There’s a sense of mystery to the plot too with regards to the identity of Beast. While it gets quite serious in tone, the ending of ‘Belle’ is perhaps a bit too simplistic. Still, it’s a film you come away from feeling hopeful, which is the best kind of feeling after a movie, and if you haven’t dived into the world of anime yet, this is a great introduction.