Belle is an anime film that was released in Japan in 2021.

Directed by: Mamoru Hosoda
Written by: Mamoru Hosoda
Starring: Kaho Nakamura, Ryo Narita, Shota Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Lilas Ikuta, Koji Yakusho, and Takeru Satoh
Run Time: 124 minutes

The film opens by introducing the popular virtual metaverse U and explaining how it works. In a lot of respects, it reminded me of how Hosoda’s Summer Wars film opened with the explanation of its virtual reality world OZ. What the introductions plays up in this film is how U is capable of bringing out a “new you” and that it’s a place where you can redo your life, and this becomes an obvious theme for the film.

When then see the focus shift to a moody teenager named Suzu Naito. She had a passion for singing and writing songs, but she lost that passion when her mother passed away while trying to save another child from a flooding river. Because of witnessing this happen to her mother, it has caused her to have panic attacks when she tries to sing. Since then, Suzu has felt resentment toward her mother for “abandoning” her for a stranger’s child, and she has become distant from her father.

Suzu is also alienated from most of her classmates, with the exception of four of them. Shinobu Hisatake is a childhood friend who insists on being Suzu’s protector, and Suzu has developed a crush on him. Her best friend is a genius named Hiroka Betsuyaku, who almost has a bit of a “mad scientist” vibe about her. Suzu also gets along with a popular girl named Ruka Watanabe and a sportsman named Shinjiro Chikami.

One day, Hiroka convinces Suzu to sign up to U. Through the metaverse’s AI biometric analysis, she’s given a beautiful avatar with pink hair and freckles. Suzu decides to use “Bell” as her online name, which is the English translation of her actual name. Suzu finds she can sing when she’s Bell in U, and Bell quickly becomes a viral sensation, and Hiroka appoints herself as Bell’s manager and producer. In U, users quickly start referring to her as “Belle,” which is “beautiful” in French.

During one of Belle’s concerts in U, an infamously strong and almost unbeatable user going by “The Dragon” (also known as “The Beast”) crashes the event while being chased by a group of vigilantes calling themselves the Justices. Justin, the leader of the Justices, plans to unveil the true identity of The Dragon by using a specialized program that’s usually reserved for U’s owners, because he feels that The Dragon is causing too many problems in U.

Suzu becomes fascinated by The Dragon, and she and Hiroka begin following various leads in the real world in an attempt to find out who this user really is. When Suzu goes into U as Bell, she’s determined to find The Dragon’s castle and try to get to know him. If you couldn’t already guess, the storyline of Bell and The Dragon is inspired by the French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast and Disney’s interpretation of that story. In U, Bell gets closer to The Dragon and wants to protect him from Justin and the Justices.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the girls at Suzu’s school become jealous after seeing Shinobu grabbing her hand and misunderstanding the situation. Fortunately, she’s able to smooth things over, but this has grabbed Ruka’s attention. Suzu thinks that Ruka is interested in Shinobu, but she decides to put her own feelings aside to help Ruka. When passions flare up for finding The Dragon and unveiling him, Suzu finds that there’s no way to quell this firestorm like she did when the girls at her school misunderstood what happened with Shinobu.

For Suzu, the real world and the world of U collide when she and Hiroka have a breakthrough in finding out who The Dragon is. But they get more than they bargained for when they witness something on the video feed that they weren’t expecting to see. It’s this event that fuels that climax of the film.

I have to admit that I had some guesses as to who The Dragon might be, but I was incorrect on all of my guesses. Just like Suzu, I was just as surprised about who The Dragon is and their circumstances.

In a lot of ways, Belle has a similar theme to Summer Wars in regards to the issues that can arise from virtual reality worlds. However, Belle has a focus on how a virtual reality world can affect an individual in addition to the repercussions for society as a whole. While Suzu initially uses U as a way to hide who she really is, she discovers that other people and their welfare is more important than others’ perceptions of who you are.

The main complaint I had with this film is how it’s stressed that it’s a terrible thing to be unveiled on U. However, when this becomes a plot point in the climax, it ends up not being as major of a deal as it was made out to be. Perhaps it was depicted this way to make a point about a particular character, but it seemed to weaken the buildup of the concept of unveiling.

I can’t forget to talk about the music in this film, since Belle is depicted as a singer in U. She sings a handful of songs throughout the film, and I thought these songs were very well done. Since this is a film that has a focus on music, it would have been disappointing if the songs in the film didn’t live up to expectations.

While the difference in animation between the events taking place in the real world and the events taking place in the virtual world wasn’t as drastically different as it was in Summer Wars, there was still a difference. This helps to reinforce the idea that the virtual world is a much different place from the real world.

Some of the best animation takes place in U, especially during the section where Belle is finally able to spend time with The Dragon. It felt pretty obvious that the ballroom scene that happens with these two characters was modeled off of the ballroom scene in Disney’s telling of Beauty and the Beast, though. But there are other sequences during this section that were rendered beautifully and felt unique to this film.

While Belle isn’t a direct continuation of Summer Wars, it can still be seen as kind of a “spiritual successor.” However, that doesn’t mean that you have to have seen Summer Wars in order to understand this film. Belle is an enjoyable film in its own right, and it should appeal to viewers who appreciate coming-of-age stories that combine technology with the story beats of a teenager growing up.

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