By Ben Konuch
“Gales of song, guide me through the storm. Let the melody lift me high, I’ll be me.”
“Belle”, simply put, is a beautiful film. Gorgeously animated, wonderfully written, and with stunning original songs, “Belle” swept me up into its world of style, emotion, and heart. Part coming-of-age story, part teen drama and part musical with a pinch of science fiction, this anime feature was loosely based on the story of Beauty and the Beast. While some may be wary of this concept, “Belle” manages to stand shoulder to shoulder with its source material as an original and thoughtful tale of identity, loss, and the hidden pains that every person keeps.
The new animated film is from writer and director Mamoru Hosoda, (“Mirai”, “The Girl Who Leapt through Time”) and follows Suzu, a young girl who struggles to find her place in the world after her mother dies when she’s a young child. Now in her teenage years, Suzu struggles to fit in with her schoolmates and constantly faces social anxiety, especially due to the fact that after her mom’s passing, she can’t bring herself to be able to sing again. With music being something that she shared with her mother and something that she loves, Suzu finds the way to follow her dream when she discovers U, a VR world that allows its users to have a fresh start through their online lives.
Suzu is caught between the real and virtual worlds, allowing for unrealistically beautiful visuals.
It is in the world of U that Suzu discovers she can sing online behind the mask of another person, her avatar Belle. However, Suzu unintentionally catches the spotlight as Belle and is propelled to online stardom, which thrusts Suzu into an entirely new world. But as Suzu rises the ranks to become U’s biggest virtual singer, she discovers a user who is notorious for causing chaos and trouble in this virtual world. Known simply as Beast, this user is hunted by the administrators of U and despised by the online world, despite some seeing him as a hero. Their first meeting launches Suzu into a search to discover who Beast is and why he does things that make others hate him, laying the groundwork for a journey of discovery, loss, and unexpected bonds.
“Belle” is animated beautifully, with a distinct and beautiful artstyle that’s paired with fluid and smooth animation to create some truly outstanding visual moments. In fact, “Belle” may be, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of animation I’ve seen in a very long time. These visuals would be impressive on their own, but what really makes “Belle” unique is how those visuals pair wonderfully with its soundtrack and performances. While the film is available in the original Japanese language with English subtitles, the English language dub is extremely high quality, and production company GKIDS painstakingly re-recorded all of the original songs in English. Mostly unheard of for anime films, these songs translate beautifully and are sung with such heartfelt emotion and talent by Suzu’s voice actor Kylie Mcneill. The songs “U” and “Gales of Song” were especially beautiful, and I’ll confess I’ve been listening to them on repeat since I watched “Belle”.
Out of all of the features that makes “Belle” such a unique film, I think the most important is its theme. “Belle” is wrapped up by fancy visuals and shiny vocals, but at its core, it’s a film about loss and struggles. Suzu’s life has been shattered by a horrible loss and no matter how hard she tries, she can’t seem to get over her anxiety or fears. The world of U is symbolic of the masks that we all put on when we go through hardships, and is equally symbolic of how many in our generation turn to social media for the feeling of value or validation. As “Belle” progresses, though, Suzu learns that she’s not alone in her pain, and that perhaps the people around her that she’s always assumed to be “perfect” or whole are putting on their own masks like she is.
What truly sets “Belle” apart is its theme of helping others heal and how it can relate to helping yourself in the process.
When the credits roll, what “Belle” leaves you with is a message about grief and pain and how it can control us and hold us hostage. The film takes some very unexpected turns and depicts some very real and very serious topics through its fictional virtual world, and hints at deeper meanings and interpretations, with some details that can even be interpreted slightly differently depending on the viewer’s own past experiences. As it stands, I would strongly recommend “Belle” to any anime fan, as well as to anyone who thinks that anime or animation doesn’t have the potential to be emotionally impactful or artistic.
What is undeniable is that the film is gorgeous, with wonderful music, and a message worth diving a bit past the surface to understand all of. For these reasons, I give “Belle” a 9/10.
“Belle” is now playing in theaters.
Ben Konuch is a freshman strategic communications student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and failing horribly at wallyball with his friends.