As a child, I spent most of my waking hours surrounded by technology. One of my earliest memories is of lazing about on the floor, Nintendo DS in hand, perpetually losing against the Fire-type Elite Four member in Pokémon Platinum because I refused to use any Pokémon other than my Grass-type starter. Most of the time, though, I found myself on YouTube, ravenously binging Let’s Plays of video games I would never play myself, in part because my parents wouldn’t buy them for me, but mostly because I cared about the Let’s Players more than the games they were playing. Maybe it’s a little strange, but they felt like my friends. I felt like I was seated on the couch alongside them, rejoicing together in victory and fuming together in loss. Online, I found community, connection, and a sense of purpose that I may have never found as a shy, introverted elementary schooler.
I grew up on the Internet. And it’s because of that experience that I connected so personally to BELLE, Studio Chizu’s latest film which dropped in North American theaters last Thursday. BELLE is director Mamoru Hosoda’s love letter to a generation of people who have lived their whole lives on the Internet—who have experienced its joys and shortcomings firsthand, who have been formed in online communities, for better or for worse, and who are pondering their place in an ever-shifting world. It offers an authentic portrayal of what it means to find yourself and connect with others—both online and face-to-face.
Copyright @ 2021 STUDIO CHIZU
Seventeen-year old Suzu has loved singing her whole life. Yet ever since a traumatic incident in her childhood (the details of which I won’t spoil), she’s been unable to sing or compose music—that is, until one day her friend Hiroka sends her a link to a new app that everyone in their grade is obsessed with. The app is simply titled U, and it promises a total-sensory VR experience, allowing users to connect with people around the world from the comfort of their own homes.
On a whim, Suzu downloads the app, dons the VR earbuds (not entirely sure how that works, but alas), and dives into U as BELLE, her pink-haired avatar with freckles that match her own. The experience moves her so deeply that she begins to sing—and to her delight, she’s actually able to! There, in the midst of a virtual crossroads, she sings a song she composed as a child: a song from her heart. Kaho Nakamura puts on a moving performance here, as in the rest of the film; she conveys both Suzu’s intense joy and her aching desire to make music with tenderness and subtlety. I’ve had her songs from the movie on loop as I write this review.1
The virtual world of U is also moving in its own way. The CG-animated backgrounds burst with vibrant color and expansive vitality; U feels like a living world, one that you’d love to spend hours in, exploring all the landscapes and taking in all the sights. We have Takaaki Yamashita to thank for the design of U; he worked together with Hosoda on Digimon Adventure: Our War Game! and Summer Wars, both of which feature virtual worlds similar to the world of U and incorporate the same sorts of design principles.2 Yamashita’s used to creating the sorts of open worlds that captivate viewers, and U is no exception.
Moreover, the avatars in U, including BELLE herself, were designed by Jin Kim, who worked on character design for Disney for a number of years and brings the same creativity and attention to detail to bear in his designs for this movie. No, really, look at these designs; they’re seriously impressive.
Copyright @ 2021 STUDIO CHIZU
Suzu’s first “performance” as BELLE is an instant hit, and when she checks her phone the next day, to her horror, she’s amassed a following of thousands and thousands. Our introverted country girl is now a small influencer, and she doesn’t know what to do with her newfound fame—or rather, she wouldn’t have known what to do without her best friend Hiroki, who appoints herself as Suzu’s personal producer and rides the wave of her fame to greater and greater heights.3 Exciting things are happening in the world of U, in contrast to the real world, where the slow rhythm of life drones on as normal. The vibrant colors of U are pitted against the duller, more earthy tones of the countryside where Suzu lives, the flashing lights of a virtual reality against the solemn shadows of the real world.
This visual tension sets up a thematic conflict in the show: Can an online identity really substitute for a true one? Can one present their genuine identity in a virtual world? Do people care about Suzu, or only about BELLE? That tension is brought to a head when, during one of Suzu’s concerts, an avatar known only as the Beast breaks into the stadium, chased by a number of self-proclaimed peacekeepers. These peacekeepers claim that the Beast has been causing chaos in U and needs to have his real identity exposed as retribution. And while the crowd rails against the Beast, Suzu is drawn to him—to the person behind the avatar. Like him, she’s hiding her true identity, afraid that she’ll lose her platform to sing should people find out what she’s like in real life.
It’s in portraying Suzu’s struggle between true and virtual identities that BELLE truly shines. For while Suzu can sing to her heart’s content as BELLE, her position is a fragile one: an illusion that can be shattered as soon as someone finds out who she really is. And while Suzu has a few close friends in real life—people who know who she really is—she’s still haunted by her past, unable to truly break free of those memories that stifle her song. It’s a poignant struggle, one we might even be able to relate to in some ways. And it’s one that BELLE portrays with subtle emotional clarity.4
Copyright @ 2021 STUDIO CHIZU
As the movie continues, Suzu strives to make contact with the elusive Beast, to figure out why he’s being chased and why he’s hiding his true identity. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll omit the details. But the climax of the film, which was expected in some ways but shocking in others, represents another tension in Hosoda’s creative vision: the difficulty of genuine online connection. The Internet breaks down the barriers of distance and culture that would otherwise separate online communities; and yet, it seems impossible to know the person behind the screen without meeting them. Yet Suzu, encouraged by her friends, seeks to achieve the impossible. And along the way, she’s able to forge closer connections with those friends, and to find her own identity as well.
Hosoda’s message is simple: While it may be difficult to forge connections and establish genuine communities online, it’s not impossible—and it might even be worth trying.
That might seem like an obvious message. But I wonder if we need that reminder today, when online communities seem to be dominated by disinformation and vitriol. BELLE reminds us that it’s possible to be like Suzu—to love genuinely and sacrificially in an online world that doesn’t seem to value that. And when we pursue genuine connection online, we might find that we begin to model that in our lives offline as well.
Copyright @ 2021 STUDIO CHIZU
A few points of criticism. For all its emotional impact, the ending of BELLE felt a little rushed. It lacked the same care in characterization that sustained the rest of the film, and the scenario was rather ridiculous. Moreover, while Suzu, Hiro, and the Beast received considerable attention with respect to their characters throughout the film, several of the other characters fell through the cracks: Shinobu is a notable example in this regard.5
So where does this leave BELLE? For my part, I loved the film; I appreciated its heartfelt take on the intersection between personal identity and community in the context of a world founded on digital communication. It also boasts an engaging storyline along with brilliant art, animation, and music. Finally, it’s the first anime movie to be shown in theaters in quite a while. And honestly, that last point alone is reason to go out and watch it as soon as you can.6
1 BELLE‘s sound design is worth noting as well. The score is paired well with the plot of the movie, but it’s not overdone, either; there are several scenes where the characters speak over silence. Sometimes it’s for comedic effect; other times it’s used to convey the stillness of Suzu’s countryside home. In any case, that attention to detail with sound design isn’t something that I tend to see done well in anime, so I was pleasantly surprised in that regard.
2 I will say, however, that the backgrounds are far more detailed in this movie, which means that U feels more realistic than OZ was in Summer Wars.
3 Can I just say how much of a fan I am of Hiroki’s character? She had some of the best gags and expressions throughout the film; I probably annoyed the people with whom I was watching the movie because of how loudly I was laughing at times. Best girl.
4 I think Hosoda’s tendency to prioritize closeups in his direction of BELLE plays a part here. Because of that tendency, we’re able to see more of the subtleties of Suzu’s expressions and reactions than we would otherwise. It makes Suzu feel more sympathetic as a character, and makes her emotional struggles ring out more clearly.
5 A friend of mine pointed out that it would be unreasonable for every character to receive the same attention as the main characters in a story. That makes sense, but Shinobu is central to the plot, and it still feels like he could have been replaced by several other characters in the movie with no unsolvable repercussions.
6 Safely, of course.