Mamoru Hosoda’s metaverse musical gets a robust 4K Collector’s Edition with tons of replay value
BELLE, the latest from Japanese animation auteur Mamoru Hosoda, has received no shortage of praise from the Cinapse team, as well as audiences and critics worldwide. The tale of a shy schoolgirl turned social media chanteuse has proven to be one of Hosoda’s most visually inventive and emotionally gripping films, with a story as layered as its rich set pieces. But as noted in my initial review, the scope and ambition of BELLE may overwhelm viewers if they’re expecting a more literal or modest modern adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. Now, presented in crystal-clear 4K Dolby Vision, this Collector’s Edition of BELLE allows viewers deeper into the world of U than ever before, with picture clarity and an abundant package of extras that does justice to the international effort that went into the film’s creation.
Suzu is a shy, everyday high school student living in a rural village. For years, she has only been a shadow of herself. But when she enters “U,” a massive virtual world, she escapes into the online persona of Belle, a gorgeous and globally-beloved singer. One day, her concert is interrupted by a monstrous creature chased by vigilantes. As their hunt escalates, Suzu embarks on an emotional and epic quest to uncover the identity of this mysterious “beast” and to discover her true self in a world where you can be anyone.
While tackling similar themes as his 2009 feature Summer Wars, BELLE truly reckons with just how gargantuan the world has become with the international ubiquity of social media. The world of OZ was something confined to its characters’ phones, surprising everyone when the upending of the virtual world reared consequences in reality. While the stakes of BELLE aren’t as Bayhemic by the film’s third act compared in Summer Wars, Hosoda’s reckoning of the real and the virtual is no less life-changing for BELLE’s characters. Suzu prizes the anonymity her alter ego gives her, finding comfort in the fact that her fans across the world think a prominent celebrity may be behind Bell’s creation rather than some rural schoolgirl. But as rogue user Dragon (referred to as the Beast) causes chaos across the world of U, Suzu investigates how some of these celebs–and other voices rising above the din of online discourse–may be the user behind the Beast.
This shift in BELLE’s story grants Hosoda the opportunity to pursue a missed theme in his previous virtual outing. In the gulf of time between 2009 and 2022, there’s a more significant, self-enforced divide between real-life people and their online personas, and we’ve evolved to feel like the destruction of that barrier may be as apocalyptic as, well, Summer Wars’ threat of nuclear obliteration. It’s only fitting that to unmask the beast, Suzu doesn’t just overcome her fear of losing the anonymity she prizes most. Doxxing herself rewards Suzu context clues that allow her and her community in and out of U to piece together the Beast’s identity, which in turn propels her into the unknown reaches of the real world to effect longer-lasting change.
The continuous interplay between the real and virtual world ties in myriad subplots for side characters who are not only their own memorable personalities, but provide further insights into Suzu’s own conflicted psyche. What begins as a loose adaptation of Beauty and the Beast becomes a springboard for Hosoda’s long-running explorations of identity, self-perception, social anxiety, and the freedom self-expression provides. While Hosoda manages to bring these stories together with a Gordian flourish, the frenzied, slightly shaggy nature of the screenplay coupled with the film’s dizzying visuals make BELLE an unexpectedly dense and daunting watch compared to Hosoda’s other works–even compared to the Jinnouchi clan of Summer Wars.
That’s not meant to shame Hosoda and his film by any means; no matter how madcap the film can be, BELLE is still rich in moments of breathtaking stillness and levity, particularly in the musical sequences that not only showcase why Bell is such a beloved performer in U, but provide key turning points in the evolution of the artist behind the avatar. Notable songs like “Lend Me Your Voice” and “A Million Miles Away” sound absolutely incredible in the Dolby Atmos tracks on this UHD, regardless of which language you listen to the film in. These moments also allow viewers to fully take in U’s sprawling visuals, which Madhouse created in conjunction with a worldwide team of artists including London-based architect Eric Wong, Disney character designer Jin Kim, and Irish Folklore Trilogy creators Cartoon Saloon. The multicultural blend of visual influences and styles on display helps create the idea that U is a platform that doesn’t feel beholden to a particular nation or identity–but is truly a space where users from all walks of life can interact without the barriers of language or nationality. While BELLE is certainly meant for viewing on the biggest screen possible, it’s even more rewarding that this UHD package exists. Viewers can not only experience favorite moments with the same clarity as a theatrical presentation, but they can further appreciate these visual and storytelling craft and nuances onscreen that can, at points, go by in a flash without the time to fully digest and appreciate them.
For English speakers, both this package and the previous Blu-ray release also provide BELLE fans further insight into the nuance and care that went into crafting the film’s English dub. Working alongside the film’s original composers and production team (including Hosoda himself), GKids has gone beyond what would be expected of a 1:1 dub and truly sought to translate the experience of BELLE for Western audiences. The additional special features further illuminate the inner workings of the film’s international production, revealing just how similar the film’s quest for completion mirrored Suzu’s own globetrotting efforts.
Each of these aspects reveals BELLE to be one of Hosoda’s most universal films–both in execution and in ethos. In multiple interviews given during BELLE’s press tour abroad, Hosoda not only expressed his hope in the ability of the Internet to positively transform its users, but also in the increasingly globalized approach to animation through streaming services and other accessible platforms. A globalized future, free of nationalistic hurdles, required in itself “a global style of animation,” which brings to life a place not “to be attacked, but a place to discover yourself and find hope.” It’s fitting that one of Hosoda’s finest creations is a mature, diligently crafted evolution from his previous works, one whose production connected as many creatives as possible. In turn, BELLE earnestly encourages its audience to do the same with countless other social media denizens worldwide.
GKids and Shout! Factory present BELLE in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio on both the included 4K UHD and Blu-ray Discs. On both discs, Japanese and English Dolby Atmos tracks are provided, along with accompanying English subtitles for both the dubbed and subtitled versions. Spanish subtitles are also offered, translated from the Japanese track. For the Special Features, English subtitles are only provided for audio not in English.
From frame one, the upgrade in quality to 4K UHD is crystal clear. Beginning as a small strand of pixels and exploding into vitality, the world of U is stunningly represented in a wide array of colors and hues, with each swirling pixel in astonishingly clear quality. What truly stands out are the ways Hosoda and Studio Chizu integrate characters into laboriously rendered backgrounds, either crisp and clear in the real world or with a slight rainbow crystallization in the virtual world. Light and shadow are well represented, especially in the integration of CG elements, making this 2D animated film feel incredibly lifelike. One subtle element that seemed a bit clearer in this presentation is how the U virtual world is rendered at a different shutter speed than reality, so that even though both are animated, one feels more noticeably “animated” than the other.
The two Dolby Atmos audio tracks gleefully utilize the sonic landscape as playfully as Hosoda does his visual one. At points, dialogue is less important than the music, with moments of crowd noise used as more of a title wave of human opinion than anything meant to be clearly discerned by viewers. The score by Taisei Iwasaki, Ludvig Forssell, and Yuta Bandoh is one of the main reasons to get this set at all, with triumphant trumpets and horns and stirring strings (not to mention wonderful vocal performances by Kaho Nakamura and Kylie McNeill) all putting the Bass to work to provide a thrumming emotional rhythm throughout the film.
For this Collector’s Edition, GKids and Shout Factory have broken out supplements across the two accompanying Blu-ray Discs. The First Blu-ray Disc is the retail Blu-ray of the film released in May 2022, covered here. However, also included is a brand new bonus disc exclusive to this edition, featuring the majority of extras previously available only on international releases of the film–now available in America for a limited time. While there are a handful of extras missing when referencing editions like the Japanese UHD, the GKids-exclusive extras cover similar ground and provide their own unique look at this material.
It is disappointing, though, that for a film where the music is so central to the experience, that a CD Soundtrack isn’t included–despite its inclusion in releases abroad, as well as the inclusion of soundtracks in other GKids/Shout! releases like Weathering With You’s UHD Box Set. However, the plentiful inclusion of so many other special features makes up for this set’s singular shortcoming.
Blu-ray Disc One (May 2022 Retail Blu-ray, here labeled as “Feature Film Blu-ray”):
- The Making of BELLE: a 44-minute behind-the-scenes documentary that breaks down each aspect of BELLE’s production, including Hosoda’s collaboration with veteran Disney animator Jin Kim on Bell’s character design, the conceptualization of U, voice recording sessions with the actors, further interviews with the cast and crew on the film’s themes, and the relentless post-production process where Hosoda tweaked the film up to the last minute.
- A Conversation with Director Mamoru Hosoda: BELLE’s writer/director discusses the origins and major thematic concerns of the film, the tentative approach to revisiting Beauty and the Beast, and the liberating aspects of creating a film set in virtual reality. Hosed also touches on the global approach of BELLE both on a thematic and practical level, and how implementing an international crew for BELLE reflected the realities of a world where content can be streamed by international viewers in a heartbeat.
- The Music of BELLE: Composer Taisei Iwasaki, music supervisor Taka Chiyo, and co-composer Ludvig Forssell discuss their collaborative approach to creating the musical world of Belle and U.
- Finding the Voice of BELLE: The GKIDS post-production team and Suzu/Belle English voice actor Kylie McNeill discuss the intensive approach to creating BELLE’s English dub, including working with the Japanese crew to create the best possible translations for the film’s musical numbers, as well as the extensive search for the best voice to express the dual role at the heart of Hosoda’s film.
- Scene Breakdowns: Hosoda provides an in-person commentary for two of BELLE’s standout sequences. For the homage-filled ballroom sequence where Bell performs “Lend Me Your Voice,” Hosoda breaks down the video game design elements of the Beast’s castle, the direct homages paid to 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, and the thematic connections to previous Hosoda films like Wolf Children. In the Suzu/Ruka/Kamishin train station confrontation, Hosoda breaks down the visual geometry behind the scene’s comedy, from character tics to the deliberate motion of the scene in between their awkward pauses.
- Mamoru Hosoda — Animation Is Film Q&As: a series of Q&As between Hosoda and Variety critic Peter DeBruge discussing the film’s approach to the Internet, animated musicals, and other topics.
- Hosoda Draws BELLE: Writer/Director Hosoda freehand sketches his film’s heroine, accompanied by Bob Ross-style narration and musings on his character.
- Design Gallery featuring character reference sheets, concept art, and backgrounds.
- Gales of Song: Kylie McNeill, the incredibly talented English voice actress for Suzu/Bell performs the film’s first musical number with her own piano arrangement.
- Trailers for BELLE’s domestic and international releases.
Blu-ray Disc Two (August 2022 Collector’s Edition Bonus Blu-ray):
- Behind the Japanese Dub: An extensive BTS of the recording sessions for the Japanese Cast. Nearly all of the film’s central cast are featured (shoutout to veteran acting sensation Koji Yakusho!), but what’s most fascinating here is Hosoda’s vocal direction. He organically works with each actor to get at the best read for each character’s lines, more often than not posing challenging introspective questions to guide the actor through their own creative process. Here, Hosoda comes across as a very instinctual and responsive director, one who thrives on collaboration with his cast even after the film is written and mid-animation.
- Event Footage: 40 minutes of Belle’s Japanese press tour, including screening intros and post-screening Q&As (including a moment of Hosoda joining via livestream from just after Belle’s standing-ovation Cannes premiere.
- Cast Conversations: Lead Kaho Nakamura engages in two interviews with Takeru Sato (Dragon) and Lilas Ikuta (Hiro).
- Interview with Takeru Sato: Belle’s Beast discusses his involvement with the film and his reactions to the film’s success in Japan.
- A Conversation with Eric Wong and Mamoru Hosoda: Previously available on Belle’s UK Blu-ray release, a moderator talks with writer-director Hosoda and London-based architect Eric Wong, who worked with Hosoda to conceptualize and eventually realize the aesthetic and practical build of the virtual world of U.
- Book: a 60-page book featuring a story breakdown, Japanese and English lyrics for the film’s songs, interviews with cast and crew, character profiles, reviews from Japan and the United States, key poster art, digital album covers for Bell singles, a U art board, and poster concept art by Asobi Visual.
- Art Cards featuring poster artwork by Asobi Visual.
- Decal Sticker featuring Hiro’s AS.
BELLE 4K UHD Collector’s Edition releases on August 30th courtesy of GKids and Shout! Factory.
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