For the past few decades it’s been de rigueur for science fiction stories to be set in virtual worlds, from the early neon-lined stylings of Tron to the hedonistic pop cultural temple of Ready Player One. The stories once treated these places like a fantasy world on par with Middle Earth or Hyrule, but as we’ve edged closer to them existing in reality they’ve gotten a lot more humdrum, maybe even ordinary. With this shift we’ve seen the real and virtual worlds increasingly collide, and it’s that interconnection between the two that forms the core of the new anime film Belle, arriving in US theaters in January.
Belle is the latest movie from Mamoru Hosoda, the director who brought us time-travel adventures like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Mirai. But he’s also known for Summer Wars, a movie that posited a world where everything is connected in the virtual sphere, not just for play but also work, finance and healthcare. Back in 2009, this seemed like a bit of a stretch, but as companies like Google, Apple and Amazon have expanded the concept has become eerily prescient. Now Hosoda is once again tackling the divide between the real and virtual worlds with Belle, a film that splits its time between rural Japan and the computerized world of “U.”
Belle is the story of Suzu Naito, a “country bumpkin” living alone with her dad and still dealing with the trauma of losing her mom several years before. When a friend sends her an invite to U she finds it to be an escape from her trauma, a place where she is beautiful and can sing. Her first performance quickly goes viral, with the clip spreading rapidly and her phone blowing up with notifications in a sappy Dear Evan Hansen sort of way. She becomes a sensation, but her newfound fame goes off the rails when one of her concerts is interrupted by a player known only as “The Dragon.” Suzu/Belle becomes intrigued by the Dragon and begins an investigation into his identity, even as self-appointed vigilantes are working to track and expel him from U.
The world and technology of U are interesting, with access gained via an app and a set of special earbuds. The earbuds can apparently overlay sight as well as sound, and they build a person’s avatar using their biometric data. It’s certainly a leap ahead of the bulky VR headsets seen in Ready Player One, or just the “theater of the imagination” that a lot of movies and TV employ, where the virtual as an actual “space” with rooms and buildings and so forth only exists in the minds of the user. Here, it’s more like entering the Metaverse of Persona 5, complete with avatars that reflect a person’s true self.
In U there’s no “if you die in the game you die in real life,” but the biggest threat is still treated as such: to be “unveiled” is to lose your anonymity and have your true form revealed to the world of U, upon which a user will literally fade away from the virtual arena. It’s weird to see this used as a plot hook when real-life social media is overly concerned with real names and verified accounts, but this is a fantasy story, after all.
As such, it takes influence from other fantasy works, most notably Disney’s classic animated feature Beauty and the Beast. Both main characters are named Belle, and the design and temperament of the Dragon is very similar to that of the Beast; the mix of animals blended into one hunched, brooding creature, the mysterious castle with a squad of cutesy servant-sidekicks. There’s even a damaged portrait over the fireplace mantle! After years of anime fans complaining about American films “stealing” from anime (Kimba the White Lion, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water and Perfect Blue), it’s funny to see an anime borrow so blatantly from the West. I can’t wait for the inevitable shot-by-shot comparison videos on YouTube; Belle even recreates the iconic ballroom dancing scene (notable at the time for its early use of CG).
There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about the animation in Belle, though it is certainly a gorgeous film. The world of U is shown as a city of sweeping towers populated by flying avatars. Animation allows the filmmakers to give each character a unique avatar, of whatever size or shape fits that person best. Suzu becomes a beautiful woman, but others are depicted as babies, fairies and cute animals. The Dragon stands out for being such a dark character, with bruises spread across his back like a fungus.
Where Belle really differentiates itself is how it melds our current internet reality with its future fantasy visions. In early depictions of virtual worlds they were always treated as a separate place that never interacted much with the real world, a “secret life” that users had so very different from their actual existence. As technology moves forward, we’ve largely found that to not be true; our virtual existence is dominated by social media and live-streaming and parasocial relationships, and all of these are generally accepted as part of our “real” lives these days.
So it is that social media is heavily entwined with spectacle in the world of U, with messages flying as fast and furious as their avatars fly through the computer-generated cities. It isn’t just a thing that “the kids” are into; the residents of U are seen to be an incredibly diverse mix of ages and races, as seen from their messages and videos. But there is still a sense that this space matters more to a particular generation: Context clues reveal that Suzu’s village is a victim of the demographic crisis in Japan, where the populace is aging up with not enough children being born to replace them. Suzu is very much alone a lot of the time in her village, with various chat rooms and the world of U serving as her one constant connection to other people.
In the end, it will be the other people in her real life that will push her to do what she needs to do to save the Dragon.The fantasy elements take a back seat to the fact that there are real people behind each avatar, and just as the service creates a look for them based on their personality, so are their problems in U are just reflections of their real life situations. And in that case, it won’t be Belle who can save the day, but an ordinary girl named Suzu Naito.