Mamoru Hosoda’s new film, Belle, world-premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on July 15 — a rushed last addition, announced only less than two weeks before that.
Yet, the film was warmly received, and gathered a staggering 14-minute standing ovation, where a beaming Hosoda shook hands with surrounding spectators.
On July 16, the film premiered in Japan, Hosoda’s home country, under the title Ryu to Sobakasu Hime (竜とそばかす姫, meaning “The Dragon and the Freckled Princess”). And it immediately gathered attention. According to online media Oricon, more than 600,000 people went to see the film in its first weekend, and box office ticket revenue surpassed ¥890 million JPY (approximately $8 million USD) in just three days.
When I went to see the film after its release, I was moved to tears. It was easy to understand why it had struck a chord.
It is the culmination of Hosoda’s many films, with the potential of charming the world — and a strong comeback following his last work, Mirai (2018), a heart-warming family story which was nominated for the 91st Academy Awards in 2019 for Best Animated Feature.
The question is, what made this animé film so special?
A Film in the Internet Age
The story follows the heroine Suzu, a shy high-school student living in the beautiful countryside of Kochi in Western Japan, in a hypothetical contemporary timeline. Suzu is a participant in this online immersive social media platform called “U,” along with 5 billion users.
The identities of users are secret, and the tagline of the platform is, “Let’s make another U a reality.” Suzu enters the world with a beautiful avatar of champagne pink hair and freckles, under the name of “Bell.” (Suzu means “bell” in Japanese.)
To everyone’s surprise, including hers, Suzu’s avatar becomes an incredibly popular singer overnight, with millions of followers.
In her success, Suzu meets a violent dragon avatar, hated and shunned by online society. She creates a bond with him, and the story looks at how their relationship develops and its repercussions in the real world.
Ultimately the film straddles the imaginary and uses it in a subtle yet moving exploration of overcoming one’s own demons and finding the inner strength to make the best out of a sometimes scary world, which includes the internet.
In an interview with The Sankei Shimbun, director Mamoru Hosoda revealed that the story was thought to be a refashioning of Beauty and the Beast in the age of the internet.
Beauty and the Beast, based on an 18th-century French novel, became the base for the homonymous popular Disney musical animation released in 1991.
In the interview, Hosoda recounted the time when he first saw the Disney film. He had just graduated from university, and was struggling in the world of animation, exasperated almost to the point of quitting. But he was very moved: “It was amazing. I thought to myself, if such a film is possible, I can work a little harder, I will try my best.”
For 30 years, Hosoda looked for ways to tell the story, and finally settled on a favorite theme of his: the internet. It brought a very original spin to an otherwise almost overly reproduced plot.
In an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) published on July 15, Hosoda expanded on this aspect: “Human relations can be complex and extremely painful for young people. I wanted to show that this virtual world, which can be hard and horrible, can also be positive.”
Hosoda is no stranger to tackling the potential and scary aspects of the internet — first in the Digimon: The Movie in the early 2000s, but more recently in his work Summer Wars (2009), which centers around the fight against an online AI threat to hack the security systems of the world.
“Young people can never separate themselves from [the internet]. They grew up with it. We have to accept it and learn to use it better,” concluded Hosoda, talking to AFP.
But what brings the whole film together is the sheer appeal of Suzu, the imperfect, shy, freckled girl next door, who through the movie manages to find her own voice.
Creating the Dazzling World of Belle
Right at the start, the viewer is struck by the astounding quality of the animation, the detail of the world created, the music, and voice actors.
The love of music is a key feature in the story. The voice of the main character Suzu was performed by singer songwriter Kaho Nakamura. Her raw melodic voice provides an unexpected depth to the role. (The artist performed at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2016.)
With a very pop beat, the main theme song “millennium parade” is performed by Nakamura. The song was written with the help of guitarist Daiki Tsuneta of the massively popular Japanese band, KING GNU. The song is so catchy that, despite being uploaded on YouTube only on July 15, it is already ranked third in trending music videos in Japan. It has racked up more than 2.1 million views, as of July 19.
More broadly, the soundtrack has various influences, including that of Ludvig Forssell, the composer of the music for popular video game Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, 2019).
Finally, the cast is stellar, even in the choice of the voice actors. The dragon is played by Takeru Satoh. The best friend of Suzu is brought to life by J-pop star YOASOBI, and Koji Yakusho plays the part of Suzu’s father.
Technique in the Making
To give fans a deeper look, the film distributor released a series of videos called “Making of Ryu to Sobakasu Hime,” revealing some of what makes the film come alive.
The internet world first explored in Summer Wars (2009) is developed in more depth, thanks to the architectural imagination of London-based architect Eric Wong. It is believable because Hosoda consulted with researchers in the realm of 5G and body sharing technology.
Moreover, the avatar of Suzu, unlike the illustrations of the heroine, was drawn by illustrator Jin Kim, known for his work on the Disney film Frozen (2014). Hosoda first met Kim in Los Angeles when his earlier film Mirai was nominated for an Academy Award in 2019.
With Belle, though, Hosoda does something quite different from the 3D animation of Frozen. Marrying a recent trend in Japanese animé, the film seamlessly uses hand-drawn 2D drawings along with computer graphic imagery (CGI), motion capture, and more. The final effect is a modern animation that maintains the warm feeling of hand-drawn 2D imagery, a challenge from which most Western animations have moved away entirely.
A Film Relevant During COVID-19
It was also striking that this film was mostly made during a pandemic.
Hosoda commented in the “Making of Ryu to Sobakasu Hime” video series that some of the elements present in the movie’s story, such as the internet world created by Eric Wong, may have been positively influenced by the pandemic. “I think that because Eric was in London during the pandemic, he was perhaps able to bring alive this idea of ‘not being able to meet, so let’s make best use of the internet even more,’” Hosoda recounted.
Hosoda himself admitted that the film, a project started in 2018, “had been realized under very particular circumstances.”
“The fact that we managed to finish this film with no infections in our company is in itself a miracle,” he commented to his staff.
The film is set to release in the United States, where it will be distributed by GKIDS later in 2021. Follow Studio Chizu for more information.
About Mamoru Hosoda
Mamoru Hosoda was inspired to take up animation after watching the films of Hayao Miyazaki, according to an interview with Hollywood Reporter in 2019. After graduating from the Kanazawa College of Art in Ishikawa Prefecture, Hosoda started working at Toei Animation (1991), where he co-directed the Digimon: The Movie in 2000. Hosoda was asked to direct Studio Ghibli’s movie Howl’s Moving Castle, but reportedly walked away from the project due to creative differences with Hayao Miyazaki.
Hosoda started his own animé production company called Studio Chizu in 2011. His works include The Girl That Leapt Through Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009), Wolf Children (2012), The Boy and the Beast (2015), and Mirai (2018), which have consistently become blockbusters in Japan.
Author: Arielle Busetto