Where did our other selves live before the internet? "It used to be that there was only one reality," says director Mamoru Hosoda. His new film, Belle, is about how the internet has introduced the possibility of multiple selves, in multiple worlds. Released in the US Friday, Belle follows Suzu Naito as she contends with newfound fame as a pop star in the virtual world U. Online, Hosoda notes, "people can explore other possibilities. They can have alter egos and live more freely." Which, when she's Belle, is exactly what Suzu does.
In the sprawling digital cityscape of U, Suzu is surprised by her appearance as Belle, a shining, pink-haired beacon. U’s technology automatically generates avatars based on users’ biometric information. In Suzu, who had given up singing after her mother passed, U sees the capacity for greatness. It is an attractive notion—that an enigmatic virtual world created by anonymous sages can reinvent a common girl as an idol. And it only works because Belle is more concerned with emotional truths than technological ones.
Hosoda, who also directed Mirai, Wolf Children, and Summer Wars, has taken the internet as the subject of his anime movies since 2002’s Digiman: The Movie. His obsession with the virtual as a place where our other selves emerge fits neatly into one of anime’s most dominant modern genres: isekai. Best embodied in 2012’s Sword Art Online, isekai describes characters’ transitions to and reincarnations in other worlds, particularly virtual ones, where they self-actualize. “When I look at other directors dealing with the theme of the internet, it tends to be kind of negative, like a dystopia,” says Hosoda. “But I always look at the internet as something for the young generation to explore and create new worlds in. And I still, to this day, have that take on the internet. So it's always been optimistic.”
Watching Belle, it’s easy to become absorbed in that optimism. It’s visually stunning, with both its rural landscapes and a digital megalopolis packed tight with a breathtaking number of pixels. At times, Hosada’s film is even a little overwhelming to look at. Belle’s diva debut has her riding on an enormous flying whale, petals and confetti filling the sky. In her first concert, she appears as the neck of a story-tall crystal chandelier, which explodes into a glistening underwater constellation. At several points in the movie, Hosoda magicks basic goings-on into higher-stakes animations that depict their real emotional impact—like a gossip war into a high-difficulty strategy board game. Hosoda paces these overpowering scenes well, punctuating them with comfortable, lo-fi slice-of-life moments from Suzu’s rural life.
Actually, Belle’s most charming moments take place in the analog world (including perhaps the best love confession scene in anime, ever). Suzu’s treks to and from school, over the same bridge and on the same train, are where we learn more about who she is alone, not in U. It’s when we first hear her strained voice singing, see her pine over a childhood friend. Much of her character development in the virtual world feels divorced from her character development IRL. Suzu self-isolates from family, community, potential friends, and love interests until everyone is brought together through Belle, a metaphor for the Suzu they all already adored—not a diva, just a country girl who loves to sing.
In contrast, Suzu in U immediately feels complete and total comfort in her new role as international pop sensation. She sings, she dances, she swaps outfits with the poise of Ariana Grande. And she decides that she is singularly equipped to draw out “the Beast,” another player considered ungodly terrifying. Where is this brave new Suzu in the real world?
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Bouncing between IRL and U, each with different plots and love interests, Belle is like two or three different movies. Of those, its virtual world component is its weakest. Stretching to encompass so many themes and places and things, Belle only skims the surface of its most envelope-pushing ideas—particularly its message about the potential for empathy and human connection online.
Hosoda tells WIRED that he did “not have a particular virtual world that I modeled U after.” Actually, a London architect, not a game designer, helped him design it. U is entirely unconstrained, with no clear purpose, design principles or topology. It is also entirely unmoderated, with self-appointed police who have somehow gained the technology to dox avatars at will. And although we know users access U using earbud technology that taps into “the part of the brain that controls vision,” according to Hosada, it’s impossible to understand throughout the movie when characters are in and out of U, and under what circumstances they go there.
U’s non-resemblance to any of today’s MMORPGs or cyberspaces would be fine if Belle was a fantasy movie and not a commentary on the power of technology. Structure gives technology meaning. It dictates how a technology is used and its impact on its users. Game designers know better than anyone that players’ ability to self-actualize in their games is the product of deep expertise and attention to detail; from the character-creation process to the limits of combat power. It is as they say: Constraint is the mother of invention.
U’s structurelessness is, then, the movie’s weakest point, making Belle less a movie about the impact of technology on people and more a movie about escapism. And escapism is, at base, always about the place you’re escaping from. It’s why Belle’s best moments take place in the Kōchi prefecture and not in the unlimited and unknowable world of U. In Belle, the internet remains a tool.
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