The new Miyazaki. That’s a description I’ve heard applied to Mamoru Hosoda over and over, and it’s never sat well with me. Notwithstanding that Hosoda has expressed critical feelings about Miyazaki’s depiction of women, or my own apathy about Miyazaki’s films, Hosoda isn’t the new anybody, nor does he need to be. He’s the first Mamoru Hosoda, and across his six solo features, he’s established a strong authorial voice and, for my money, stands out as one of the best and most exciting filmmakers working today, and not just in animation.
Belle, like Hosoda’s previous films, takes a gigantic sci-fi concept and boils it down to a tiny personal story. The setting is contemporary, but the internet seems to be dominated by an app called U, a social network which, through body sharing technology (think a less gross take on eXistenZ), allows users to create an avatar (an AS), and feel and experience everything within U just as they would in the real world. 17 year old Suzu (Kaho Nakamura / Kylie McNeill) is an introvert. She only has a couple of friends at school but one day her friend Hiroka (Lilias Ikuta / Jessica DiCicco) gets her to join U and Bell is born. The look of Suzu’s AS is based on the prettiest girl in school, Ruka (Tina Tamashiro / Hunter Schafer), but with Suzu’s freckles. Through her, Suzu finds the confidence to sing for the first time since her mother’s death. Bell becomes famous in U, but when her concert is interrupted by a figure known as ‘The Dragon’ (Takeru Satoh / Paul Castro, Jr.) she is fascinated by him, and tries to befriend him. As she gets deeper into Bell and U, her experiences begin to bleed into the real world.
As with Summer Wars, Hosoda creates a world within a world here. U is pitched as place where you can get a second chance to decide who you want to be, but the film’s ultimate message is that you can bring that opportunity out in to the real world, and though your own will is important, you also need the help of others to do that. The two worlds of the film are almost diametrically opposed. The real world sequences are set largely in the rural community of Kochi prefecture, with the river that Suzu lives nearby playing a key role. The backgrounds for this section are the antithesis of what we often think of when we picture Japan: an ultra-modern society, with buildings to match. If anything, the film’s Kochi seems a little bit stuck in the past, architecturally, and the backgrounds give it a vividly natural and beautiful appearance. U, of course, is all futurism, heavily based on designs by architect Eric Wong. There is a wide variety of architecture within U, with the structure of the place itself, the first thing we see, built with clean, glowing, straight lines, but element like the Dragon’s castle standing out as different. The production design is stunning throughout, be it Kochi, or elements like the whale with speakers set into its body that Bell stands on to sing her first song in U.
Though Suzu styles her AS name as Bell, the film’s title clues us into what Hosoda is doing with the story, simply by adding an extra letter. Belle is, of course, a reflection on the fact that the writer/director is drawing much from Beauty and the Beast here. Specifically, Hosoda and the animators nod to the Disney version. This can sometimes be seen in the posing of Bell and the Dragon (the first time they get close), but most specifically in a sequence in which they dance together, which visually quotes the famous camera move to the chandelier in the Disney film.
Comedic relationship beats between Suzu and her oldest friend Shinobu (Ryō Narita / Manny Jacinto) and Ruka and nerdy Shinjiro (Shōta Sometani / Brandon Engman) leaven the growing drama of the story within U, and how it moves into the real world. I don’t want to give away the ways in which Hosoda takes the story out of U, but suffice to say that, as with Wolf Children and Mirai, the metaphor gives way to a real and deeply felt concern that is present in many of our lives. In short order, Hosoda and the actors establish characters who feel genuine and (you’ll notice on a second viewing) pay off seeds that are sown from the first few moments of the film. Hosoda’s emotional storytelling hits hard, and the film’s moments of real world conflict are heart in mouth stuff, beautifully played by the actors in both the Japanese and English versions. In particular, both Kaho Nakamura and Kylie McNeill (in her first acting role) do a fine job drawing the distinctions between Suzu and Bell. It’s worth noting here that, without making a song and dance about it, the English soundtrack gives us one of the first examples I can think of of a trans actress (Hunter Schaefer) playing a character who is neither trans nor questioning, Ruka is simply another girl who goes to school with Suzu. It strikes me as a quiet milestone.
This may not quite be Hosoda’s masterpiece (for me, that remains the absolutely dazzling Wolf Children), but Belle is as gorgeously designed and animated as fans have come to expect, and while it again delves into Hosoda’s favoured ideas (technology, especially the positive impact it can have, identity, family and other themes besides), he shows no signs of running out of orginal things to say. Once again, he demonstrates why he’s one of the best directors working.
The Picture and Sound
I watched the Japanese version and excerpts of the English version, both in 4K, for this review.
The 4K picture is perhaps not the first thing you’ll go to when you want to show your system off, but it’s as near perfect as you can imagine. As the film was finished at 2K, there’s no better for this image to get. It’s pin sharp, and you could get lost in the detail of the images, especially the backgrounds of the scenes in Kochi prefecture. The hugely populated sequences in U are also excellent, with many characters and details to pick out.
Music plays a huge part in the film, and not only do Bell’s songs all sound excellent, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the work the English dub (outstanding all round, with good performances and close matching to the animation) put into the music. The original songwriting team came back to pen English lyrics that both fit the music, (largely) fit the animation and convey the same meaning. The technical challenge must have been ridiculous, but both film and disc pass with flying colours.
Everything is housed in a sturdy hard cardboard case with the film’s poster art on one side and a painting of Belle and the dragon on the other. Each, as well as the title on the spine, is glossy and has raised areas of detail. Inside there are two standard sized cases. The first is black, and holds the 4K and Blu-ray copies of the film. The second is blue, with two Blu-rays full of extras and a CD containing the film’s soundtrack.
Also included are sixteen glossy postcards, each with different art on both sides, a numbered certificate of authenticity, a poster (with alternative art compared to that on the box and cases, each of which has individual art) and a 60 page book including behind the scenes art, interviews with Hosoda and the lead Japanese voice cast, and much more besides. This is already generous before you get to the on disc content.
While I write this review, I have been playing the CD soundtrack, happily, it includes both the English and Japanese language versions of the film’s key songs, as well as the lovely and varied score.
On disc, you’ll find a wide array of extras. I’ve not had time to digest them all. A 25 minute making of documentary, focuses on the creation of the film’s imagery, but also quickly talks to technical advisors that Hosoda spoke to about the concept of U (it’s closer than we think, it seems). One of the best features is a 40 minutes series of voice over sessions. This shows almost all of the featured Japanese cast recording their lines but, best of all, we get a real insight into Hosoda’s gentle but detailed and technical approach to directing his actors.
The rest of the first disc of extras is taken up with interviews. There’s a panel at a celebration of the film’s completion, a collection of EPK interviews, a 43 minute interview with Hosoda and various grouped interviews: Nakamura and Satoh, Nakamura and Ikuta and Hosoda, Nakamura and Daiki Tsuneta, who wrote the song U for the film.
The second disc features a 12 minute piece about the making of the English dub, which really brings home how much the team behind it tried to get this track right. Another two interview pieces with Hosoda (one a video call for BAFTA) last just over an hour combined, the BAFTA interview also extends to over an hour more content across a conversation with Hosoda and Eric Wong and one with composer Taisei Iwasaki. The rest of the disc features a variety of content, from scene breakdowns (12 and 10 minutes), a 15 minute piece on the music, English voice of Bell Kylie McNeill singing Gales of Song. A particular treat is an almost 9 minute piece showing Hosoda drawing Bell. Wrapping things up are a design gallery and the traditional selection of trailers.
All told, this collection of extras is beyond exhaustive, it will take many days to go through everything and add up to a great insight into this film, and Hosoda’s work more generally.