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After premiering at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in July of last year, Australian audiences can finally bear witness to the latest offering from Summer Wars and Mirai director Mamoru Hosoda, when Belle hits cinemas across the country on Thursday, 20 January.
For the uninitiated, Hosoda is the mastermind behind some of the most highly acclaimed anime feature films of the past two decades. ‘Leaping’ into the spotlight with his award-winning The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, this auteur of animation has gone on to direct hit after hit, culminating in an Academy Award nomination for his 2018 time travel adventure, Mirai.
Starring singer-songwriter Kaho Nakamura, and fellow voice-acting newcomer Kylie McNeill in the English language dub, Belle follows Suzu, a despondent, socially awkward high schooler, grappling with her inability to do what she most loves in this (or any) world: sing. A new, secret life and creative outlet await her, however, when she discovers the wildly popular virtual reality world known simply as ‘U’. Within this literally fantastic online space, our average teenage heroine quickly becomes the sensation of the server with her enchanting sound – the beautiful and mysterious singer, Belle.
Equipped with the VR means to escape her isolation AND live out her dreams under the guise of an enviable avatar, Suzu is the most sought-after celeb on the platform. Of course, as we all know, despite – or perhaps because of – every benefit the Internet has to offer, it is also rife with malicious forces eager to wreak havoc, represented in U via the powerful and destructive entity ‘The Dragon’.
Belle is hardly Hosoda’s first venture into ‘the digital world’. The filmmaker has been juxtaposing urban and rural aesthetics against vibrant computerised landscapes since his directorial debut, Digimon: The Movie. True to form, his visions of U are spellbinding, conjuring images of airborne whales and dazzling cityscapes as far as the devs can code. Where Belle differs from the director’s back catalogue, however, is the design of the titular heroine herself. Suzu’s online avatar is almost reminiscent of a Disney princess; a break in style that works seamlessly with the film’s beautiful and beastly themes.
While it’s easy to get swept up in U’s jaw-dropping visuals and exciting sci-fi themes, the realistic designs of Belle’s real world, based on the Kōchi Prefecture of Shikoku, Japan, are just as impressive. The dread and loneliness evoked in key scenes simply through their use of muted colour palettes is nothing short of expert, contrasting the larger-than-life distractions of VR against the harsh realities our protagonist must endure in her day-to-day life.
At its core, Belle is an exploration of abandonment and escapism. After a personal tragedy shakes the foundations of Suzu’s self-concept, the talented teen becomes increasingly avoidant, unable to connect with the majority of her peers. It’s a familiar scene for anyone who struggled throughout their own adolescence, approached with the thoughtful nuance we’ve come to expect from Studio Chizu.
Much like the character of Belle herself, the film shines brightest through its incredible musical numbers, composed by Yûta Bandoh, Ludvig Forssell, Taisei Iwasaki, as well as star Kaho Nakamura. Belle is absolutely gunning for the title of Best Original Song with ‘Gales of Song’ (the English version of which is heard below in the official trailer!), and I will personally be the first to flip tables if this banger of a soundtrack does not receive the awards season accolades it so rightly deserves.
The film’s only shortcoming (if you can even call it that) is its sheer abundance of ideas, which do occasionally feel cramped within its two-hour runtime. But to be left wanting MORE from a film, not ‘better’ or ‘different’, I hesitate to even flag this as a negative, as there’s just so much joy to be derived from the story exactly as is.
Belle is an optical and auditory standout, hugely emotional and overflowing with heart. Hosoda and the team from Studio Chizu have absolutely brought their A-game to this bittersweet snapshot of youth, successfully capturing not only the feel of online spaces in the current year but also the psychological burdens that come with significant loss. It’s truly a stunning piece of media, which I cannot recommend highly enough when Belle finally hits cinemas on Thursday, 20 January.