Writer/director Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle, is a modern re-working of Beauty and the Beast (renamed here in the subtitle as The Dragon and the Freckled Princess). This animation is a delight: a fresh, thought-provoking take on the fairytale. Is it sentimental? Yes. Does that bother me? Not one jot.
Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura) is a troubled seventeen-year-old. Her mother died when Suzu was a little girl, and she’s never really come to terms with the loss. She is moody and taciturn with her father (Kôji Yakusho), and struggles to express herself. Suzu and her mother always used to sing together, but now – even under the patient guidance of her mother’s choir friends – Suzu can’t find her voice; she’s desperately shy and self-conscious.
But in the virtual world of ‘U,’ Suzu can use an avatar and, at this remove, her emotions all come tumbling out – in song. Her haunting voice and plaintive lyrics attract a lot of attention, and, as Suzu’s best friend, Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta), is a tech-savvy genius, her alter-ego, ‘Belle’ soon becomes a star. In U, at least, everything is going well… until a mysterious beast disrupts one of Belle’s performances, and she embarks on a quest to discover his identity.
This Studio Chizu production is gloriously animated. The real world backdrops are rendered in intricate detail, in stark contrast with the dizzying, eye-popping invention of the virtual world. And the story works well: the characters are fully-rounded – complex and flawed; their relationships are credible. The not-so-subtle allusions to Twitter pile-ons and trolls – represented here by Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa) and his vigilante group – depict the problematic aspects of social media, but the main impression is one of positivity. U is a place of opportunity, an egalitarian space, where preconceptions don’t count.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is in its message that our virtual selves can work in harmony with our real selves, serving to bolster our confidence. Belle allows Suzu to sing again and, having practised in the safe space of U, she feels able to open up at school and home. We hear negative stories all the time, about how fake images and pretence are damaging our lives. But Hosoda asks us to see things differently, to consider how we might harness this technology to become the best versions of ourselves. It’s a fascinating take.
My only quibble is with the cinema rather than the movie. This is a children’s film, squarely aimed at a middle-grade to teen audience. So why is it only showing once a day, at 8pm, when most youngsters are at home, getting ready for bed? Of course, it works for adults too, and I enjoy it immensely, but it seems a shame to limit its potential in this way.