There’s a general arc to the films of Hosoda Mamoru. Over time, they have been increasingly concerned with family and the raising of children, to the extent that his early works can feel like a distant memory. His latest work, Belle, feels like both a return to older titles like Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time that comes by way of his decade-long focus on parenting.
Belle (whose Japanese title translates to The Dragon and the Freckled Princess) is actually an incredibly difficult work to summarize, as it tries to be so many things at once. It’s the story of Suzu, a teen girl who inadvertently becomes the biggest music sensation in an interactive virtual community after being unable to sing due to childhood trauma. It’s also heavily inspired by Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with the aforementioned Dragon being an online version of the Beast who picks fights with everyone and has to run from a Gaston-equivalent with the power of doxxing. But Suzu also struggles with the cruelty of social ostracization at school, a self-inflicted strained relationship with her dad, relationship woes, and much, much more.
I believe the way Belle harkens back to Summer Wars is obvious enough (virtual worlds and community), but when it comes to the teen aspect, I think Hosoda basically looped all the way back around. If works like Wolf Children and Mirai come across as explorations of how the feelings of small children influence how they behave and grow, then Belle is smack-dab in the tumult of puberty. Rather than entirely centering the world around teens, there’s a sense that the story is about watching over them as adults.
Belle is a lot, especially when you get into its various topics, including but not limited to: the Internet as a place to find oneself vs. the judgmental eye of social media, the way media facades can bring out positive qualities but also obscure dangerous ones, and the particular ways in-group vs. out-group dynamics run counter to the greater good, among others. At times, Belle seem like it’s going to burst at the seams, which makes it a full and rich experience but also at times thematically convoluted. The rich visuals and stunning musical performances help to tie everything together, keeping the package from falling apart at the end and delivering a complexity that has more merits than faults.
I don’t say this often, but I wonder if Belle would have actually been better as a long-format series. As 13 episodes or maybe more, all its components could be given more room to breathe, and the journey Suzu herself takes could have benefited from the real passage of time. The lack of a film-level budget might have meant a less exquisite presentation, but I think the themes could have rung truer.