Fantastic Fest 2021: BELLE is an Ambitious Social Media Spectacle

Mamoru Hosoda’s latest anime feature is a thoughtful exploration of the virtual masks we wear

Mamoru Hosoda’s films have a knack for exploring the fantastical worlds that exist in conjunction with our own, from the alternative mythological worlds of Japanese folklore in The Boy and the Beast to the stunning anthropomorphized social media of Summer Wars. Vibrantly underpinning these beautifully illustrated universes is a deeper, earnest exploration of inner worlds. Hosoda’s fascinated with how we connect to each other as human beings: how the various personas we adapt to get through our daily lives only stunt the growth of the people we have the potential to become. We could go back in time to fix our mistakes or explore the consequences of our actions (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mirai) or carefully choose to be men over beasts (Wolf Children) but Hosoda unabashedly celebrates the inevitable conclusion for each of these fruitless pursuits.

We’re beautifully, majestically flawed human beings, and only in coming together do we become more than the sum of our parts. To err isn’t just to be human — it’s to become divine.

Hosoda’s latest feature Belle dives into the sprawling cyber world of U, a virtual system that has taken over how humans engage with the world around them. Where Summer Wars’ OZ platform was restricted to screen interaction, users of U can literally “start over” their lives in a Matrix-like setting that directly interfaces with their eyes and ears. Avatars are uniquely tailored to their creators’ biometrics, creating identical yet wildly stylized and augmented virtual doppelgängers based on their best qualities. Everyone in U can literally be their dream self, with all of the fantastical possibilities that holds. The greatest celebrity of this world is musician Bell, whose life-affirming, toe-tapping tracks take the world by storm with the aid of floating instant-translation subtitles and throngs of vocal fans in Japan and beyond. Bell’s true identity, like all of U’s users, is an encrypted secret: her real user, Suzu (“Bell” in Japanese), is an introverted schoolgirl who believes she can’t sing a note.

Billed as a modern take on Beauty and the Beast, Belle moves its original story’s focus beyond a search for good and beauty within the worst of us to the qualities we all seek to amplify or hide. Even beyond Suzu, who revels in both her virtual viral fame and real-life anonymity, everyone in Belle has something they seek to hide about themselves. Suzu becomes a pop icon; a middle-aged housewife troll-brigades for her causes using an infant avatar, believing herself immune to consequences; multiple students at Suzu’s school barely conceal nascent crushes on each other, not believing they’re good enough for their dream pairing. These flawed people couldn’t be more different from their U avatar counterparts, despite being based on their unique, unmodifiable biometrics. While the concept of the freedom of anonymity has been explored in tandem with the rise of Twitter and Facebook, Hosoda is fascinated with how the avatars we choose can also highlight the qualities we fail to see in ourselves.

This disparity, however, can prove as dangerously addictive as much as it is a public service. Constantly running from her meek, introverted life into a literal dream world where she manages to take down a rival pop star, Suzu is able to accomplish everything she dreams of before rejecting the idea she’s capable of such things in the real world. Instead, Suzu and her tech-savvy best friend carefully manage Bell’s online persona while laughing at which celebrity news programs speculate is secretly behind Bell’s every move. In the same breath, Suzu envies the popular girl at their school, shies away from talking to dreamy boy Shinobu, and hides under instruments in her after-school choir in order to sing semi-confidently. It’s fame seemingly without consequences…except at the cost of actually pursuing the dreams in the real world.

The dream world is exquisitely realized by Hosoda and his team at Studio Chizu, a vibrant kaleidoscope of pop culture, HUDs, kooky avatars, and glossy consumerism on endless transparent levels. Like the earthy vistas of The Boy and the Beast or even the last iteration of this virtual world in Summer Wars, audiences’ eyes might tear up on instinct; to take it all in at once is just too staggering a task to handle.

What might catch viewers off guard is how much time it takes Belle to get to its Bête. A mangled, toothy black mass hidden under a splotchy-bruised cloak, the Beast (or The Dragon) is a vicious creature who wreaks AI-freezing havoc wherever it goes. When it disrupts Bell’s biggest concert yet, a team of moderators led by blond-coiffed Justin is determined to use his anonymity-breaking unveiling powers to reveal the Beast’s true identity and bring him to justice. This subplot, undoubtedly owing the most to its original source material, is compelling in its razor-sharp jabs at cancel culture and misguided white-knighting. However, it can’t help but feel like too much of a diversion from the rigorously-developed themes of identity and fame that already make Belle a fascinating watch.

Hosoda manages to get these stories back on track, however, as Belle reveals more about the tragic backstory not just behind The Dragon, but Suzu herself. Scarred by her mother’s fatal sacrifice to save the life of another stranger’s child, Suzu has spent her life wracked with conflicting feelings of guilt and self-worth. Teased with tantalizing clues about The Dragon’s identity, Suzu realizes her virtual conflicts must be resolved in the real world, and she rallies her inner circle to help save the life of someone she only knows piecemeal using only the fragments of knowledge at her disposal. What’s more, Hosoda recognizes and values the real-life connection Suzu and other social media users create with similar strangers around the globe; that if the world were that much smaller, we’d be a real-life presence in their lives without question. Further questions abound from that insight: with the internet connecting us to more people than ever, what responsibility do we have to these strangers facing peril at such a remove to us? And if we choose to act, what is the value system behind such virtual altruism, as avatars allow us to mask our motivations at every turn?

The plot’s myriad (and sometimes overwhelming) plot strands manage to converge in a heart-wrenching, visually stunning manner in the vein of classic Hosoda, and not without a copious amount of the signature slice-of-life humor that makes his features so memorable. Even with a handful of people in our early press screening, a sequence where a schoolboy and his crush approach each other in an unbroken shot that evokes both Buster Keaton and The Hurt Locker made the theater echo with raucous laughter. As ambitious and beautiful as Belle’s more gargantuan sequences may be, it’s these moments of touching simplicity that might stick with you the most. Like the characters within them, it’s the balance and combination of these sequences that make Hosoda’s films add up to something extraordinary–and Belle is a wonderful new addition to a stellar filmography.

Belle had its Texas Premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 25th, with a theatrical release planned for 2021 courtesy of GKIDS.

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