In the near future the internet has evolved into U, a massive virtual reality second existence where avatars are created based on user’s biometric data. The most popular celebrity in U is Belle, a breathtakingly beautiful and talented singer. Almost no one is aware that in reality the starlet is Suzu, a neurotic Japanese schoolgirl. Traumatised by the loss of her mother, Suzu struggles to even talk to people but at her best friends urging has found a way to express her hidden talents in U. A landmark concert is intruded upon by Dragon, an infamously aggressive player. This prompts U’s user-base to declare him public enemy number one. Suzu, however, detects something more than hostility and is soon risking everything she has built to amicably seek him out.
It feels odd to say but it’s been just over three years since Mamoru Hosoda’s previous theatrical work Mirai. Whilst I enjoyed that well enough it felt very much aimed at its admitted audience of new parents and I came away somewhat wanting. Thankfully, Belle is absolutely Hosoda firing on all cylinders.
It’s easy praise for me to say the opening musical number is genuinely amazing, to the point that if I’d been sat at home rather than in a theatre I’d have been compelled to rewind it then and there to watch it again. The COVID pandemic is still a worry we must all take seriously but that level of spectacle throughout the film is a massive argument for seeing this during its theatrical run if at all possible.
Of course impressive visuals would ring hollow if that was all that was on offer but as he is well known for Hosoda injects both the characters and story with real soul. Suzu is a deeply relatable character, be you a teenager now or someone who remembers how those years felt. Watching her attempt to overcome her anxiety with her natural propensity for kindness is incredibly endearing. It’s helped that in the Japanese audio (the version of the film I saw, though English dub showings are also available) she’s voiced by singer Kaho Nakamura. In anime it’s not unheard of for female talent to split their time between acting and singing but this is a case of a dedicated singer’s debut at acting and it’s an amazing display. Nakamura instils a sincerity to Suzu and when required to perform as Belle the result is truly outstanding. I’ve been listening to Japanese music for two decades now and what Nakamura delivers is phenomenal. I can easily believe people would go crazy for this performer.
Amazing as our lead is it’s fair to say Belle is a movie with an ensemble cast and one that thankfully is just as endearing as the main protagonist. Although Suzu’s trauma is a hurdle for her to attempt to overcome much of the film’s comedy is found in her regular life in characters such as her best friend Hiroka and potential crush Shinobu. There’s a flawless succession to these comedy moments, with a joke never feeling too short or too long. The jokes land every time, helped by Hosoda masterfully knowing not to telegraph punchlines like so many lazy comedies now do.
The relative comedy of Suzu’s regular life serves to balance out the more intense story beats occurring in U. It’s a distinction that is made visually too, with reality using Hosoda’s more traditional iconic expressive 2D animation style whilst the online space uses advanced celshading. It’s here that a lot of social commentary is delivered as with OZ before it in Summer Wars U is a look at where the internet might be headed. Indeed this is a take on that developed in hindsight and acknowledging the realities of the internet as a force for both good and ill based on how it genuinely operates today as established force, including online vigilantes. With the ‘Metaverse’ now being a concept pushed by big tech whether we want it or not it couldn’t be more timely.
Sadly, this is where I must offer my one major criticism of the film. Whilst Suzu/Belle’s bonding with Dragon isn’t inherently bad, due to personal experience it became clear to me very early on where they were headed with the character of Dragon and his motivations. The result is a film that thus far has tried to be dramatic but heart-warming dedicates its final act to a very serious topic and then offers a clumsy resolution, as if realising in real time it was ill advised and trying to back out. This might be a very personal critique given the plotline in question, but for me it was a great shame to see a film I’d largely adored swerve so badly right before the finish line .
That unwelcome misstep aside, Belle is a film I cannot recommend highly enough. Very rarely I will watch an anime title that is so hauntingly brilliant it claims a little piece of my soul, a personal accolade that doesn’t even include titles I more frequently discuss. Belle has absolutely earned that place in my heart with its sheer grandeur, charm and emotional punch. It’s a film that reminds you of the joy of being alive.
Belle will screen in cinemas in the United Kingdom and Ireland from 4th February in both subtitled Japanese and English dubbed. Please check the official site for venues and options.