Belle (2021) is a visually striking deep dive into a vibrant metaverse. In the tradition of writer-director Mamoru Hosoda’s previous exploration of the internet in films like Digimon Adventure (1999) and Summer Wars (2009), Belle introduces the effervescent digital world of ‘U’. A crowded intersection where internet fame, fake news, pop idols, Discord-like moderators and cancel culture all meet in a sparkling virtual cityscape.
Produced by Studio Chizu co-founded by Hosoda (Wolf Children, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) and Yuichiro Saito, Belle follows the shy and reserved Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) – a grieving teenager unable to use her singing voice. She soon finds the world of U, a user-driven metropolis where avatars are generated on the users’ concealed strengths.
Naturally, Suzu finds herself in a Hannah Montana-like situation taking on the username and stage name ‘Belle’ – easily rising to internet fame as the world watches her rediscover her own voice. A familiar rags to riches trope unfolds, think X Factor winners and the birth of TikTok stars overnight. Suzu experiences overnight success in a VR vacuum.
The exploration of animation techniques provides a symbolic dichotomy in Suzu’s daily life. Illustrated by the shifting use of 3D rigging when she is Belle online and the 2D hand-drawn animation when she is Suzu offline, a noticeably flatter and less flamboyant portrayal. Whilst online U users pay attention to Belle’s every move, in Suzu’s off-time she is ghosted by mostly everyone at school.
Hosoda finds the middle ground with online and offline identities, digging deeper into who we truly are and how reclaiming insecurities can be an incredibly powerful action.
However, the plot faces a few pacing issues. The story itself, whilst imaginative, is somewhat like a chimaera. Pulling inspiration from the tale that is old as time, Beauty & the Beast, and at other times turning into a palpable mystery or a light-hearted slice of life. On one hand, it can feel like watching separate films all cut up together. On the other hand, the fact it is unpredictable makes it quite electric. Despite the relatively innocent subject matter, the disarming nature of the twists and turns demonstrates that there are real-life stakes and consequences at hand.
Belle tugs on your heartstrings as much as your senses, but there is some kind of fairytale magic in the soundtrack in particular – it is enchanting, calling for careful listening with a composition by Taisei Iwasaki, Ludvig Forssell, Yuta Bandoh, and Miho Hazama. The songs embody so much storytelling ability, especially with the performance of singer-songwriter and first-time voice actor Nakamura as Suzu.
In the dazzling opening sequence, Belle performs the song ‘U’ on a floating humpback whale with speakers piled onto its back. The fast-paced drum feels like anticipation, Suzu keeping up with the pace of life in this new digital landscape where all eyes turn to her.
Other tracks like ‘A Million Miles Away’ are wonderfully performed by Nakamura, whose voice breaks feel all the more heartbreaking. It is a harrowing power ballad that shows little glimmers of hope in a world that can so easily turn its back on those who need their help. The reprise is just as whimsical with effortless build-ups. The soundtrack is a deeply moving vehicle that hits the emotional beats of the film as it progresses, whilst still existing at its own pace and rhythm that guides the film.
In Belle, real-life tragedies are coded into fairy tales. Belle is a story with a beating heart, boldly asking questions like what is so different about the digital world to the one we call reality? Who finds themselves unheard? In all the noise, who is it that we choose to listen to?