NYFF 2021 review: Belle (Mamoru Hosoda)

“Originality may be the least concern or criticism of Belle, however, as Hosoda’s thematic and narrative exploration into his world remains extremely undercooked and cliched.”

In the world of Japanese animation there have been directors that have transcended the bar of local genre labels and entered the pantheon of international cinema, the list including Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, Isao Takahata, and Mamoru Oshii. With anime’s rising influence based on successful box office numbers there are inevitably more directors that will reach an international audience. Mamoru Hosoda has ostensibly inherited the mantle of the most noted director in Japanese animation with consecutive successful films (his most recent, Mirai, was nominated at the Oscars for animated film), but I’m not quite sure he has achieved the level of artistic merit that any of his noted predecessors did.

With Belle, Hosoda presents a world in which society has become addicted to a new social media, U, in which users are given an avatar based on physical and mental metrics. Avatars can vary wildly in appearance and it seems users can do whatever they want when they enter this world; no clear rules are explained on gameplay, but instead rough sketches are provided by the writers of the film. The best comparison I can make to U is Second Life; avatars also mix with the social media experience of platforms such as Instagram.

Suzu, a young high-schooler, suffers from the death of her mother as a child and remains an outcast in her school. When she creates a profile on U, she’s gifted with a beautiful avatar named Belle that has long silky pink hair and the humanistic features of a goddess. At first she doesn’t gain many followers on the platform, but she quickly becomes popular when a song she sings goes viral. During one of her performances she meets another character, referred to as both The Dragon and The Beast, who is a large bear-like humanoid creature. He is an extremely powerful online persona who can fend off attacks from other players. There are some players who want to kick Beast out of the platform because of his standoffish nature and dark appearance. Belle becomes sympathetic toward the Beast and they form a romantic-esque relationship, much like Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast.

Hosoda obviously provides homage to Beauty and the Beast and he takes many of the scenes from that film. For instance, much of the production design copies that of the Beast’s castle in Beauty and the Beast. Hosoda’s homage is questionable though, as it is later revealed that the actual player for the Beast is a younger child suffering from an abusive father. Something feels off in the change of story; almost to the point of trying to do something different that ultimately fails because of its poor taste in the age differences between a young child and a nearly adult girl. Hosoda also pulls from other films such as Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky and even computer-animated works such as Over the Moon and Wreck It Ralph 2. Many plot ideas are similar to the ones found in these films, and for these reasons Belle isn’t a very original film, nor does it achieve a higher level of narrative art.

Originality may be the least concern or criticism of Belle, however, as Hosoda’s thematic and narrative exploration into his world remains extremely undercooked and cliched. First, his main character is a nerdy outcast girl, something that’s been done hundreds of times. Next, his villains are all completely underdeveloped and do little to create any form of complexity in the film. Using these archetypes to such an unexplored extent truly limits functionality of the film’s narrative at creating anything deeply heartfelt or intellectually stimulating.

Likewise, the universe of U functions similarly to that of The Matrix, but without the details explained. Suzu’s character gets an amazing avatar, and the film hints it’s because of her prior hardships in life. In reality, while Suzu had an extremely sad childhood with the loss of her mother, there’s no explanation as to why people who have faced multiple familial deaths or tragedies wouldn’t have even better or greater avatars than Suzu’s. It doesn’t quite add up or give insight; nothing is explained or detailed on how characters are hooked into this online social platform while normal life still can move forward at the same time. It’s quite perverse and undeveloped in its trappings. The film is also filled with a huge cast of unnecessary characters; less is better, something Hosoda has not yet learned.

All being said, Belle does feature gorgeous animation (even an improvement on the style in his past films) and there are some truly stunning sequences. There are some nice comedic moments as well in the film, mostly focusing on smaller relationship ironies and jokes between characters. While some of my thoughts on the film seem harsh, Belle will surely please those who enjoy the director and his works. It’s not a failure, but when the film plays at both Cannes and the New York Film Festival, and the director is considered the next big thing of Japanese anime, the film should be something more refined.