I’d wager that most people know the concept of the Uncanny Valley, where the brain triggers a negative response to something artificial that’s made to look human but comes up short somewhere in the middle. It played over and over in my mind while watching Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film, Belle (originally titled The Dragon and the Freckled Princess in Japanese), but not because it upset me. In essence, I was trying to figure out if there was a term for the exact opposite effect.
Because there’s no pretense of reality in this massive animated undertaking. Hosoda creates a fantastical digital world that mirrors the real one in which his characters play out the events (somewhat obviously inspired by “Beauty and the Beast”), but it’s made remarkably clear that this is an artifice, a manufactured world. And yet, through the combination of compelling characters, enchanting music, and absolutely dazzling visuals, I found myself seeing more and more humanity and real-life truth than I could have imagined. As such, this film elicited more of a pure emotional reaction out of me than any other film in the 2021 canon.
The film opens on a breathtaking construction of the virtual world called “U,” which boasts over five billion members, all inhabiting various avatars that look anywhere from enhanced humans to magical creatures of all sizes. This is the result of a technological and biometric linkup system that “U” uses to essentially manifest the “real” user, based on their physical appearance and inner personality. As a computerized narrator exposits the idea behind “U” – being able to start a new life in a virtual environment where your destiny is your own (a temptation for many, myself included) – the world intricately expands itself with massive detail to reveal our title character of sorts, “Bell,” a virtual singer riding on the head of a humpback whale, and singing a rather catchy song to the adoring denizens of the endless digital space.
Hosoda is one of the new masters of anime, unofficially sparring back and forth with Makoto Shinkai to be the heir apparent to Hayao Miyazaki. Through his work on such films as The Boy and His Beast and the Oscar-nominated Mirai, he’s shown the type of wondrous imagery that Studio Ghibli and Studio Chizu thrive on, widening your eyes as well as the limits of your imagination. Bell is no different in her introduction, with pink flowing hair, full lips, arcs of freckles under her eyes, all exuding pure joy through her music. A combination of 3D CGI environments and textures with 2D character designs and backgrounds creates this grand, layered illusion that explodes off the screen as she sends flowers careening off her deep, red dress.
This is what I’m talking about when I say the opposite of the Uncanny Valley. I know it’s a cartoon. There’s never any doubt in my mind. There’s nothing that matches the real world in anything on the screen, from the juxtaposition of curved and angular forms to the “on threes” Eastern style of animation (movements every three frames instead of every two as they do in Western animation) creating just the slightest hint of lag, which makes perfect sense in a computerized space. And yet, I feel as though I could touch it. The visuals trick your eyes ever so subtly (and on a standard 2D screen no less) that you feel utterly immersed in this world. If “U” existed as it’s stated in the film, I feel like what I see on the screen is the exact same tactile experience I’d have if I signed up myself and put on the equipment, and that’s truly amazing. My eyes watered at the sheer scale and beauty of it all.
As for the story, it’s just as compelling as the visuals, which is why Hosoda is so deservedly lauded. Bell is actually a rural high school student named Suzu (voiced by Japanese singer/songwriter Kaho Nakamura in the original version and YouTube singer Kylie McNeill in the English dub), her online name being the literal English translation of her Japanese one. A lover of music, she lost the will to sing after the death of her mother (kids movie has to have a dead parent, though at least there’s a real purpose for it here), but poured her heart into her pen, writing songs from the age of six that helped her process her pain. She’s distant from her father (Koji Yakusho/Ben Lepley), and mostly only hangs out with her best friend, Hiro (Lilas Ituka/Jessica DiCicco, aka Flame Princess from Adventure Time), who is tech savvy beyond any of her classmates.
In many ways, Suzu is a typical teen, and Hosoda goes out of his way to show how normal she is, even in her most extreme moments. She wishes she had the confidence of the school idol, Ruka (Tina Tamashiro in Japanese/Heather Schafer from Euphoria in English), she harbors a crush on the popular Shinobu, who promised to protect her after her mom died (Ryo Narita/Manny Jacinto from Bad Times at the El Royale), and encourages her goofy yet athletic friend Kamishin (Shota Sometani/Brandon Engman) as he practices for canoeing competitions. Despite her mousy nature, she does well in school and is generally liked by everyone. She has comically over-the-top wig outs over minute concerns, like all teenagers do (her involvement in an adolescent love confession late in the film is comedy fucking gold). She finds it difficult to put her situation into words because she herself doesn’t fully understand it, yet her body will essentially act of its own accord to betray her mental state. A lot of this is played for laughs, but there’s earnest pathos in this as well, because even when it’s exaggerated (complete with frustrated anime faces), it’s almost universally relatable. Every single person in that theatre over the age of 15 knows exactly what she’s going through, even if they haven’t personally experienced it.
This is the other reason why Hosoda and Shinkai’s films are so resonant. There’s an invisible line between visual storytelling and character study, and both of them walk it so deftly that it’s almost beyond reason. The balance they constantly strike between jaw-dropping animation and grounded humanity is almost entirely unmatched in any corner of the cinematic world. Seeing Suzu live her teenage life alongside her digital one is just another example of how expertly both filmmakers know this delicate craft.
Anyway, Suzu creates Bell on Hiro’s suggestion, but when she uploads a class photo for the program to create her avatar, it accidentally combines physical elements of her and Ruka, giving her a uniquely beautiful character. Once inside of “U,” the emotion of the moment overtakes her, and Suzu, as Bell, starts singing, becoming an instant viral sensation (with Hiro’s algorithmic help). Suzu’s confidence is restored to the point where she’s almost happy again, looking at the world with open eyes for the first time in a decade.
That reverie is interrupted during one of her concerts by the Dragon, also called “The Beast” (Takeru Sotah/Paul Castro, Jr.), a black-clad, violent warrior with bruises all over his cloaked back. Chased by “Justices,” a self-appointed police force led by the superhero-esque Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa/Chace Crawford from Gossip Girl), the Dragon fights them off and escapes, but not before Justin vows to “unveil” him with a special weapon he has that cancels out a person’s avatar.
Suzu and Hiro initially want to expose the Beast as well, believing him to be a menace. But as time goes on, Suzu begins to pity him, feeling a connection grounded in mutual grief. She finds the Beast in his hidden castle deep inside “U” (yes, I’m phrasing it like this on purpose; yes, I’m nearly 40 but acting 12) and tries to get closer to him, forming an empathetic rapport. Before long, the two are in a position where they have to protect one another from Justin’s patrol, with Suzu always hoping to reach the person behind the form to find out why “U” would bring out this aspect of him in this world.
This is where the film elevates itself to the pantheon. There’s an incredible amount of nuanced observation and commentary on human behavior in the online world. Hosoda has created this unending simulacrum where you can be anything you want to be, but the program is designed to show you for what you truly are inside. Bell believes she is plain, but the program used both her and her friend’s appearances to give her a form where she could exude her own beauty and art in a way she couldn’t before. The Beast is figuratively scarred in the real world and literally so here, turning him almost feral. Justin believes himself an upstanding crusader, and he can convince loads of sponsors to fund his culture war, but his self-righteousness and aggressive disregard for other opinions shows through with every subsequent appearance.
And yet, the film never goes so far as to choose sides in how the internet should be governed. There is freedom in the anonymity of an online persona, and there will be people who abuse it. But who gets to be the arbiter of what is and is not allowed in a place that was designed to have no ironclad laws? Is power given freely or is it earned? Are you potentially doing more harm than good when you seek to expose the truth?
Most importantly, which version of you is the one to show the world? One of the best subversions of the old “Beauty and the Beast” tale on display here is the fact that both of our protagonists are hiding something from everyone. Bell (stylized as “Belle” in graphics for the obvious reason) is a more pleasing projection to the eye, but it’s a façade nonetheless, so what makes her any more honest or good than the Dragon? It’s incredibly profound how thorough Hosoda is in demonstrating the pros and cons of the digital and virtual world, its potential and its downfall, its temptation and its folly.
The music is also uncommonly good, and this is coming from a guy who really doesn’t like pop music. That’s mostly because I can’t stand the mass production model of the modern music industry and the artificiality of manufactured pop stars, especially when they’re called “artists” despite not contributing anything to the recording (even their voices are distorted by computers). However, that major concern is alleviated here, as Nakamura wrote the lyrics to all of Bell’s songs (with Ludvig Forssell writing the instrumentation), so the star is actually projecting herself through her own work, which adds a much-needed degree of verisimilitude. It also doesn’t hurt that both Nakamura and her English counterpart, Kylie McNeill (whose voice brings to mind the likes of Shakira and Mandy Moore at times), do not look like pop idols, but rather like real women, which only enhances the experience on a meta level. Tracks like “Gales of Song” and “Whispers” draw you in, while “Lend Me Your Voice” and “A Million Miles Away” will gleefully rip your heart out of your chest. By the time we hit the climactic number, the combination of the song, the visual, and the thematic depth on display got the water works welling right up to the surface for me. How none of these songs are on the Academy’s shortlist is beyond me.
Even when you know where the story is going, the movie finds ways to surprise, delight, and force you to deal with your own emotions in ways you’d never be prepared for. So obviously, I’m giving this the highest recommendation I can. The question is, which version should you see, assuming you have a choice? I watched the film twice on successive evenings, first in English, then in Japanese. I’m not one of those hardcore anime fans who automatically sides with one form over another, as I feel they both have value. I love the subtleties of the Japanese language, and I’ve learned quite a bit of it through osmosis over the years. On the flipside, the nerd in me loves recognizing the English voice actors as they jump from role to role. I even got super excited on a personal level for the latest Sword Art Online movie, because one of my friends from college got to voice some of the side characters. He’s been working his way up the voice artist ladder for years, and I was so stoked to see him get on such a high-profile project.
All that said, if you have the option, I would go for the Japanese version with subtitles on this one. There are three main reasons. One is that while McNeill does great singing the songs, the lyrics are a direct translation from the Japanese, so the words don’t always fit the melody in the best way, and since Bell has full lips, she gets highly-detailed mouth movements instead of just the standard anime lip flaps. As such, the sync is very far off from what McNeill sings and what we see. Secondly, in one of the better bits of social commentary, there are always throngs of online users spewing opinions about one thing or another. It’s the internet, it comes with the territory. However, in the Japanese version, these lines have a better flow to them, moving in and out of one another with appropriate audio crossfades to emphasize who Suzu and others are paying attention to at a given moment. In the English dub, it feels more perfunctory, with each line simply being spoken with minimal inflection, like the actors are just reading off a list, and it doesn’t feel natural. Finally, for whatever reason, the English voice actors were directed to pronounce “Shinobu” as “SHEEN-oh-BUH,” which is just completely wrong. Shinobu is a fairly common Japanese name – for both boys and girls – and the emphasis is typically on the middle syllable. For whatever reason, the English dub inverts that, stressing the first and last, and it’s weird. Maybe I’m off base, but it just hit my ears really badly.
Either way though, you’re sure to be enchanted by this movie. Hosoda has been nominated for the Oscar before, and he deserves it again. This will be a bit of a dark horse, but maybe sneaking in right before the Animation Branch makes its decision will help. They tend to default to Disney and Pixar, who have a combined three entries this year, and it’s very likely Flee will also get a nod as it goes for an unprecedented three-fold nomination. That potentially leaves only one spot open, and I sincerely hope Belle gets it. It’s the best pure piece of animation for all of 2021.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who do you think is the next great anime visionary? Would you want the escapist life inside a virtual world? Let me know
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