Anime is always an exciting medium as it boasts some of the most progressive filmmaking. While most people are familiar with the works of Studio Ghibli, there is another huge animation studio that has become hugely popular in Japan and has a large following worldwide. Studio Chizu was founded by director Mamoru Hosoda and producer Yuichiro Saito in 2011 and has released four films to date. The newest of these films is Belle, which had its premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a 14-minute standing ovation. The film is an adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairytale Beauty and the Beast, but where there have been many traditional adaptations over the years (with the most famous rendition being Disney’s Oscar-winning 1991 animation), Belle completely reinvents the story for the modern-day by incorporating social media while still sticking to the moral and basic storyline of the tale.
The film follows Suzu, an introverted 17-year-old schoolgirl who loves music and singing but hasn’t sung since her mother died, who sets up an account on social media app U which allows users to create an avatar and experience a whole new world. Suzu’s avatar is called Belle and quickly gains popularity by singing songs that she has written. When Belle is due to perform at her biggest concert to date, the performance is crashed by the “Dragon”, a mysterious figure who is plagued with anger and fury, and the two eventually bond.
Like all of Studio Chizu’s outputs, Belle is written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda, who strips the original fairytale down to its core and propels it into the 21st century, while providing little nods to the 1991 Disney adaptation. What makes Hosoda such a brilliant visionary is his ability to delve deep into the characters’ internal conflicts and his fearless approach means that we are able to see all sides of his protagonists while injecting plenty of humour and lightness into the film to provide a perfect balance. With Belle, Hosoda provides plenty of background and characterisation for Suzu, so we get a perfect idea of who she is and why she acts the way she does. We see that Suzu has a deep internal conflict as she struggles to form her own identity which is contrasted with the confidence that she exudes as Belle in the world of U. Adding onto this, Hosoda is not afraid to shy away from mature themes and adds in discussions on grief, loss, and child abuse, proving that animation can discuss real-life topics in the same way that live-action films do.
The style of the film is captivating from the opening scene as we are immediately thrust into the world of U and get to see Belle performing a song while riding a whale. The great thing about the U universe is the limitlessness and imagination that takes hold as we see hundreds (if not thousands) of uniquely designed characters against a computer-animated backdrop that is vast and endless. The production design is carried out by Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, Alice Dieudonné, Almu Redondo and Maria Pareja, who are best known for their work for Cartoon Saloon, and it proves to be a perfect combination as they help bring Hosoda’s vision to life.
Leading the cast is Kaho Nakamura, who voices Suzu and Belle, providing the speaking and singing performances. Nakamura perfectly captures Suzu’s frantic and nervous energy as we sense her internal conflict and desire to forge her identity, while also providing the confidence and sense of self that Belle has. Although Belle is technically Suzu, it is technically a role of two parts as Belle is a part of Suzu that Suzu feels unable to convey to the real world, meaning that this is not an easy task to achieve. However, Nakamura portrays every aspect of both characters beautifully, while also having the singing voice to match. The contrast between the opening scene in which we hear Belle sing confidently and fantastically and the following scene in which Suzu frantically gets ready for school shows a huge conflict in her personality and identity.
Now that we’ve discussed the Beauty, it’s important to discuss the Beast, which in this case is Dragon. Providing the voice of Dragon is Takeru Satoh whose performance is filled with the darkness and turmoil that the character feels. The character is introduced with a bang halfway through when Belle has risen to fame and is performing at a huge concert as he is pursued by a group of vigilantes who swear to bring justice and order to the U universe. Dragon’s first scene is highly intense and violent, marking a huge contrast to the events of the film up to this point, and perfectly marks the differences between the two main characters. Dragon doesn’t say a lot, but when he does, Satoh perfectly conveys the struggle that the character has and the physical and mental anguish that he is feeling.
Going against the norm, Belle incorporates musical elements, which is almost unheard of in Japanese cinema, especially within anime. Hosoda originally wanted Belle to be a musical but restricted the number of songs; however, the songs that managed to make the final cut are exceptional and fit beautifully into the story and the world of the film. The film’s opening number “U” is our introduction to the character of Belle, who we see before we are introduced to Suzu, and immediately immerses the audience into the world of U and the various characters that inhabit the social media world. The film’s climactic moments lie in the performance of “A Million Miles Away”, which is a slow ballad that Suzu sings when she is searching for Kei and Tomo. The song builds and builds, showing the power and community that has brought millions of social media users over. Comparing the emotional tone of “A Million Miles Away” with the upbeat and celebratory tone “U” displays the complexities in Suzu’s character, and her ability to connect with people through the power of music.
Belle is an animation that will steal your heart and stay with you long after it has finished. Fearless in its theme and progressive in style, Belle marks another triumph for Hosoda and Studio Chizu, and it is such a shame that it hasn’t had a look-in at the major award boards. Between Suzu’s impeccable characterisation and the wonderful songs, Belle is a film that has a lot to say and propels anime into a new age thanks to its combination of hand-drawn and computer animation.
What did you think of Belle? Let me know in the comments below!
Belle is available to watch in cinemas now!