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Taking 'Beauty and the Beast' into cyberspace, this vivid and inventive Japanese animation serves up a bold and dazzling take on the familiar fairytale.
By Sarah Ward
January 20, 2022
By Sarah Ward
January 20, 2022

When Beauty and the Beast typically graces the screen, it doesn't involve a rose-haired singer decked out in a matching flowing dress while singing heart-melting tunes atop a floating skywhale mounted with speakers. It doesn't dance into the metaverse, either. Anime-meets-Patricia Piccinini-meets-cyberspace in Belle, and previous filmed versions of the famed French fairytale must now wish that they could've been so inventive. Disney's animated and live-action duo, aka the 1991 musical hit that's been a guest of childhood viewing ever since and its 2017 Emma Watson-starring remake, didn't even fantasise about dreaming about being so imaginative — but Japanese writer/director Mamoru Hosoda also eagerly takes their lead. His movie about a long-locked social-media princess with a heart of gold and a hulking creature decried by the masses based on appearances is firmly a film for now, but it's also a tale as old as time and one unafraid to build upon the Mouse House's iterations.

At first, there is no Belle. Instead, Hosoda's feature has rural high-schooler Suzu (debutant Kaho Nakamura) call her avatar Bell because that's what her name means in Japanese. That online character lives in a virtual-reality world that uses body-sharing technology to base its figures on the real-life people behind them, but Suzu is shy and accustomed to being ignored by her classmates — other than her only pal Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta of music duo Yoasobi) — so she also uploads a photo of the far-more-popular Ruka (Tina Tamashiro, Hell Girl). The social-media platform's biometrics still seize upon Suzu's own melodic singing voice, however. And so, in a space that opines in its slogan that "you can't start over in reality, but you can start over in U", she croons. Quickly, she amasses an audience among the service's five-billion users, but then one of her performances is interrupted by the brooding Dragon (Takeru Satoh, the Rurouni Kenshin films), and her fans then point digital pitchforks in his direction.

Those legions of interested online parties don't simplistically offer unwavering support, though. Among Belle's many observations on digital life, the fact that living lives on the internet is a double-edged sword — wielding both opportunities to connect and excuses to unleash vitriol, the latter in particular when compared to the physical experience — more than earns its attention. That said, all those devotees of Suzu's singing do rechristen her avatar as Belle, and she starts living up to that fairytale moniker by becoming fascinated with the movie's Beast equivalent. He's mysterious to the point that no one in U or IRL has been able to discern who he really is, but the platform's self-appointed pseudo-police force is desperately trying. Suzu is also mortified about the possibility of anyone discovering that she's Belle, although she's drawn to Dragon because she can sense his pain.

Hosoda has repeatedly proven an inspired filmmaker visually — one just as creative with his stories and storytelling alike, too — and Belle is no exception on his resume. After the likes of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, Wolf Children and Mirai, he's in especially dazzling form in a movie that wields its images in two distinctive modes. In U, Belle is an epic onslaught for the eyes, its animation lively, busy and hyper-real in a way that cannily mirrors the feeling of wading through always-on online realms. This is where that whale swims through the air, concerts are held in what appears to be a hollow planet and Disney-style castles turn gothic. When it's in Suzu's reality, the film opts for naturalistic tones in a look that notices the everyday beauty in the flesh-and-blood world, even amid daily routines in fading small towns filled with average teens and their families. Hosoda revels in the contrast between the two, in fact, because that clash constantly sits at the film's core.

A wealth of juxtapositions echo through Belle, so much so that Hosoda may as well paint with them as he does with his mix of hand-drawn animation and pixels. Collisions between the virtual and actual, genuine connection and online ease, perceptions and truth, anonymous freedom and reality's trappings, being anyone and accepting yourself, and happiness and trauma all bounce through the movie — and never, befitting its vibrant visuals, in a black-and-white fashion. Indeed, while the film's top-level insights into the solace we seek online, the faux coat of armour it affords and the horrors it can also unleash don't reveal anything new, Belle is both deeply felt and disarmingly attuned to tiny details. Those two traits apply in its piercing emotions and background minutiae, and also in bigger strokes such as in Suzu's and Dragon's backstories. She suffered a great loss when she was younger, and the grief it still causes shapes everything about her every move in devastatingly astute ways, for instance.

Some other pitch-perfect bits and pieces: the chorus of text clouds, incessantly bubbling up on computer and phone screens, that the feature uses for both worshipping and cruel online chatter; the scars Dragon sports, as imitated in IRL tattoos by his aficionados, but also emblematic of the motives driving him; and repeated vistas as Suzu wanders through Kōchi Prefecture, where she lives, and her surroundings don't physically change but her feeling within them shifts depending on what else is colouring her life. That's the level of intricacy that Hosoda is working with as he also spins a coming-of-age tale complete with teen angst and schoolyard gossip — the offline parallel to digital witch-hunts — over Suzu's long-running friendship with now-class hunk Shinobu (Ryô Narita, Remain in Twilight), and doesn't stop using Belle's bangers to convey a world of emotion.

Studio Chizu, which Hosoda co-founded with producer Yuichiro Saito in 2011, isn't yet a household name as fellow Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli is — but as it keeps growing with each of the director's releases, it really should be. Belle deserves to be the new go-to Beauty and the Beast adaptation, too, although three decades of Disney domination means that it'll likely never supplant the Mouse House's versions. Hosoda might find that apt, however, because Belle sings loudest about being brave enough to know and embrace who you truly are in an existence where it's now ridiculously easy to pretend you're someone or something else. And while it mightn't seem like it'd need courage to create this lush, grand, generous and captivating film — and gorgeous as well — but bold, insightful and transfixing takes on stories as old as rhyme just don't come around that often.

Top image: Studio Chizu.

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