By: Beata Garrett | @zhongxia246
Belle won me over for the first hour with its gorgeous visuals, nuanced take on the power of the internet, and soundtrack. At least, that was until I saw the turn it was taking in the latter half and thought, Please no, don’t do this.
It’s hard to reconcile my overwhelmingly positive feelings for the first half with the dismay I felt later, but I’m going to try.
The movie follows Suzu, a shy high school student living in a rural village.
Since her mother’s death, she’s had difficulties singing and connecting with other people. But when she enters the massive virtual world of “U,” she becomes Belle, a beautiful and beloved singer who’s afraid of nothing. One day, her concert is interrupted by a monstrous user called Dragon. As she connects more to this mysterious “beast” and learns of his wounds, she must decide who she truly wants to be and whether her secret identity is worth keeping.
The movie wastes no time throwing viewers into the world of “U,” and showing us how bright and exciting it is to be loved and famous. If you’ve seen director Mamoru Hosoda’s other work, Summer Wars, you’ll be struck by the resemblance of Belle’s virtual world, “U,” to “OZ.” I love the way Hosoda imagines the internet as a bewildering rush of highways and nonstop traffic, and how the logic of his virtual worlds are story-driven–there’s no point in criticizing how anything works because the emotion and fantasy is the point. By allowing “U” to scan your biometric data, your hidden strengths and true self are revealed, and that’s exactly what Suzu needs.
Hosoda did a great job making viewers empathic to Suzu by showing us the toll her mother’s death has taken on her. A montage depicts how happy the family was and where Suzu’s love of music came from then cuts to her death. It’s a noble death as she rescues a child stuck in a raging river, but the event leaves Suzu still struggling with her sadness and anger towards her mother for making that decision. This was a great character moment and gave me hope that Belle could tackle such difficult themes regarding grief.
Suzu’s only other friend is Hiro, whom I found to be both funny and terrible as a friend. She invited Suzu to “U,” and supports her more as a manager than she does as a good friend. Her only other friend is Shinobu, a popular boy whom Suzu has a crush on and who just wants her to open up. This is all he is throughout the entire movie, which made me feel like their relationship was a waste of screen time.
The only bright spot in the cast of supporting characters were Ruka and Kamishin, two characters with far less screen time that still become a cute couple by the end and felt like a much better emotional investment than the Shinobu and Suzu love story.
I was convinced for the first half of the movie that Shinobu was the antagonist because there is a vigilante or “princely” user (Justin) in U, but the antagonist(s) never gets any meaningful development.
This becomes emblematic of Belle’s biggest problem-–besides Suzu, none of the other characters are fleshed out or entertaining to watch. They feel and act like cardboard cutouts.
Perhaps this was a way to make Suzu stand out more within the story since, in her ‘real life’ she’s invisible and, in contrast, Suzu’s characterization does indeed stands out. Personally, I enjoyed the way her anxiety was depicted in reality versus the freedom she has in “U.”
Source: millennium parade – U
While the internet is harmful in many ways, it does allow people to have the freedom to put a version of themselves out there that they can’t be in real life, and to connect in meaningful ways to people they would otherwise never meet. As soon as Belle arrives, she starts singing the incredibly catchy “U” by millennium parade that I’ve had on my playlist for months.
Title: millennium parade – U
Predictably, people both love and hate her, introducing one of the film’s strong points: the effects of fame. This is done very well through characters like Belle, Dragon, and even includes some of the supporting characters, like Ruka. They’re heroes to some and enemies or villains to others, which is how celebrities in real life are often viewed.
Dragon is a hero to kids but monstrous to adults, and the adoration for Belle that grows once she’s perceived as Dragon’s victim only helps to solidify that mindset in people’s minds.
I find the little ways in which Hosoda depicts the lives of others through social media fascinating and he condemns the easy anonymity of hating or worshiping someone on the internet. The twist on the classic fairytale of Beauty and the Beast is also clever, and Dragon had a lot of potential to serve as a well-written counterpart to Belle. It’s a shame that the reveal of his identity was so…distasteful.
For example, a part of his mystique are the bruises on his avatar which seem to increase with every virtual fight he has…only to have that note discarded when it becomes clear that Dragon’s real-life identity is a child, Kei, being physically abused and that “U[’s]” interface is simply carrying that onto his virtual identity through the constantly updating biometrics scan.
The bruises are what leads Suzu on her quest to find Dragon’s real identity, and she ponders the mystery of them throughout the movie prior to discovering their real cause. I would’ve preferred that the bruises were an indication of his emotional turmoil rather than what it turns out to be–the markings of physical abuse he’s suffered at the hands of his father while trying to protect his brother.
This revelation is the beginning of the movie’s worst half. From there, Belle sidelines Suzu’s grief and the healing process to focus on a simplistic rescue story. Now that Suzu knows who Dragon is, she must save him from his father who’s a complete caricature of an abusive person. There’s a wonderfully animated scene of her singing with her true face to win Kei’s trust with millions of users singing alongside her, but even that fell flat in its emotional impact.
Honestly, the depiction of Kei and his brother’s trauma upset me a lot. On one hand, Hosoda nailed an important insight of how hard it can be to help someone when you find out they are in an unsafe situation. Calling the police or encouraging them to tell someone may put them in even more danger and there are solutions that those kids have probably already done or thought of that didn’t work.
Kei’s feeling of hopelessness is completely reasonable and it doesn’t help that Suzu comes to check up on him only to…well, return home–presumably, leaving him and his brother under the continued care of their father. One of the supporting characters does call the police but it was already shown that this is ineffective. I was incredibly angry when he hugged Suzu and said something along the lines of, “You showed me how to be strong and now I’m going to fight, too.”
First of all, being weak or being strong has nothing to do with being a victim of abuse. And…is that all? I would’ve given the movie a bit of a pass if Kei and his brother began living with Suzu but Belle doesn’t even give that to these kids.
We have no idea what happens to them–whether they get help, are able leave, or even an update of things that have changed. We get nothing to complete this major part of the story and that’s just bad writing.
In conclusion, this was a beautifully animated movie that should’ve focused on Suzu and the role of music in her story of coming to terms with her mother’s death. Like other Hosoda movies, Belle is filled with gentle moments that will make you teary-eyed but wastes the rest of its runtime with bland side characters and a muddled plot. Overall, it’s a hit-and-miss movie that left me confused and angry when I came out of the theater, and I know I’ll only watch the first half if I ever see it again.