In the summer of 2019, there was an anime that got a few small portions of the internet buzzing. Given, an adaptation of Natsuki Kizu’s manga, told the story of a boy named Mafuyu struggling to find his voice after the death of his boyfriend. He held a close attachment to his boyfriend’s guitar, and eventually asked a classmate, Uenoyama, to help him learn to play. The story focused heavily on how music can provide a voice to people who feel voiceless, and a strength to people who feel weak. Unfortunately it never gained a huge following, despite its well-crafted and emotional story.
This wasn’t the case for Belle, the latest film from blockbuster director Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, The Boy and the Beast), which quickly became one of the highest-grossing films in Japan upon its release last year. But can it find similar success in the West?
Belle follows the story of Suzu (Kylie McNeill), a shy and gloomy girl struggling to cope with the death of her mother. She grew up writing music and singing alongside her mother, but after her death, she harbors feelings of resentment towards her mother for risking her life for a stranger, and it’s hard for her to connect with the people around her, including her father. Without the ability to sing, Suzu feels like she will always be unseen and unheard.
That is, until she finds that she has a voice inside of U, a virtual world that allows users to start a new digital life. When her avatar is created, it mimics a beautiful girl whom Suzu names Bell, and when she sings for the first time, she becomes an overnight sensation. With the help of her friend Hiro (Jessica DiCicco), Suzu is able to perform elaborate shows as Bell and continue her rise in popularity.
It comes crashing down, though, when a user dubbed The Beast (Paul Castro Jr.) ruins one of Bell’s concerts. From then on, Suzu becomes obsessed with trying to help this user everyone else has cast out as an ugly and vicious monster. No one knows who The Beast is, but the internet swirls with speculation. Can Suzu find them before The Beast is unveiled? Is this a journey a quiet, unassuming girl like her can complete?
Writer/director Mamoru Hosoda is rather well known for his stories revolving around turbulent home lives and personal struggle, and Belle studies these things beautifully and rather realistically. The use of virtual reality and the focus on internet anonymity as a way for people to find themselves online in a way they can’t in person never comes off as preachy or out of touch, even when the negative aspects of it are explored.
Themes such as grief, abuse, and depression are respectful, and the difficulties the characters face aren’t shied away from but embraced, which gives the characters dimension that some films lack when dealing with hard issues.
Just as beautiful as the story is the animation. Belle is full of gorgeous visuals, excellent character design, and stunning backdrops, in both the real and virtual worlds. It’s incredibly fluid. Every character is given something to make them stand out; my personal favorite example of this is Kamishin’s (Brandon Engman) wild orange Crocs, which can be seen in almost every scene he’s in. I think these small details are fun and great for the overall design.
Of course, a major part of Belle is the music. There are a number of original songs throughout the film, and each of them are honestly a delight to listen to. The lyrics are well done, the composition is amazing, and this all goes for the underlying instrumental soundtrack as well. The music in the film is simply stunning, and it’s truly what makes sharing Belle a great experience. It helps you connect with one of the core themes of the film: music is something that can connect us, and help us navigate the world around us.
Visually and audibly gorgeous, Belle is a film that strives to show how people connect with not only each other, but also with themselves, particularly after facing trauma. Its heavy themes are expertly interlaced with online and high school drama and bits and pieces of comedy, but it never feels like the film makes light of any of its serious topics. Plus, it has a soundtrack you’ll be listening to nonstop. If you’re looking for a film that looks like Studio Ghibli quality but with slightly more adult themes, this is definitely one for you.