Hosoda Mamoru’s Belle is incredibly corny, and I kind of loved it. I think you could probably say that about any number of the slice-of-life animes I’ve adored in recent years, like the Kyoto Animation productions K-On!, Sound! Euphonium, Liz and the Blue Bird, and A Silent Voice, but while Belle shares with most of those works a focus on the emotional life of a musically-gifted teenage girl, it also reaches outward to make a statement about The Way Things Are Now in a way anathema to the KyoAni hyper-specific approach. Hosoda goes big: it’s not enough for his moment of epiphany to simply be one damaged person connecting with another, it has to be witnessed by the entire world.
The entire virtual world, that is. Belle is about a young woman, Suzu, played by singer Nakamura Kaho, painfully shy and still suffering from the loss of her mother years before, who joins U, some kind of futuristic virtual reality world that scans your mind and body and creates as your avatar an idealized version of yourself, amplifying your strengths and weaknesses. She, in her virtual form as “Belle”, quickly becomes a singing sensation, charming millions with plangent pop ballads about loneliness. Her (fake) world is disrupted by a rampaging monster known as “Dragon” to whom she becomes weirdly drawn. This becomes more and more obviously the Beauty and the Beast story, until even I picked up on the connection. Suzu tries to find out who Dragon is in real-life, and what’s pained him so much to cause his destructive acting out, before the VR police (led by a fascist blond named Justin) can dox him into nothingness.
It’s all ridiculous of course, and the rules of the virtual world make absolutely no sense. But I’m not sure that matters, and Hosoda plays it all so emotionally straight that when it builds to the big climactic song, for awhile you actually kind of believe that music can bring the world together, can make us all better people, and that bullies can actually be defeated with nothing but the power of innocent moral righteousness. Hosoda loves big climaxes like this, and while Wolf Children, his masterpiece, does this while still staying believably small (it’s about one mother’s love for her child), he seems more at home in big mind-exploding climactic sequences, real emotions collapsing or blowing up virtual or imaginary worlds (Mirai and Summer Wars take this approach, if I remember correctly).
One of my favorite bits in all of the Hosoda films I’ve seen though is the scene right before the big climax, when a couple of romantic plot threads involving side characters get resolved at a train station. He holds a long shot: Suzu and her friend Ruka on the right side of the screen, and Ruka’s crush Kamishin on the lower left corner. As her two friends realize the other has a crush on them, they turn red and awkward, Suzu silent in the middle. Ruka does not move, Kamishin runs back and forth out of the frame. Hosoda holds the shot for an extraordinarily long time, only cutting to a close-up of Suzu when one of them mentions her crush. It’s a very funny scene, the more so because Hosoda underplays it, never overplaying the cartoonish surreality (I shudder to think how such a scene would play out in Demon Slayer, for example) or even the standard shot-reverse shot formula one would get in a typical live-action film. The restraint takes a scene that could have been merely comic into something as beautiful as it is silly. It’s slice-of-life filmmaking at its best.