(literal title: The Dragon and the Freckle Princess)
Mamoru Hosada is perhaps the best of that generation of young anime directors who have all been called “the next Miyazaki.”
Although, to be fair, I still prefer his early films, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars to anything he’s made since.
He first started getting attention with his film Digimon Adventure: Our War Game! (which was combined with two other shorts in the US and marketed as The Digimon Movie) in which a group of children uncover a dangerous Digimon which threatens to destroy Japan with a nuke. It is largely set in a colorful virtual world, and it is hard to miss that this online world looks an awful lot like the online world of Oz in Summer Wars.
And that the basic plot is more or less the same.
The idea of a shared, online, virtual world clearly has a very strong hold on his imagination, so it comes as no surprise that he is visiting it once again, even if this time this shared world is just called “U.”
However, this time he eschews the epic virtual battle with potentially devastating consequences in the real world for something more intimate.
Or is that quite the right word for it when the parts of the story in U play out on an epic scale?
U differs from OZ in one major: while in OZ the user’s view on its vast virtual world was on a computer screen or a phone, where the graphics seen by the users did not always match the incredible beauty of the in-universe view the movie gave us. U, however, is a phone app which somehow plugs the user into this world so they can experience it directly. The player’s avatar is generated from a biometric scan and is supposed to represent who they really are.
Quiet and ordinary small town girl Suzu is amazed when her avatar, Belle, proves to be a beautiful young woman who looks more like one of her friends than like her. The only similarity she can see is that Belle also has freckles.
But once she escapes into the persona of Belle, Suzu suddenly discovers that she can indulge her love of singing without fear — and without hiding under the table, as she does when she sings with the local choir. Before long, she has become a huge celebrity, with swarms of followers — and haters.
However, during a big concert, a group of vigilantes burst in, pursuing the mysterious Dragon, who is a major champion in the fight games but is hated because he is so driven and ruthless. Dragon escapes them easily, but Suzu is fascinated with him and wants to learn more.
Dragon’s cloak is covered with what looks like glowing bruises, which pulse when he is threatened. She gradually discovers more about him and grows closer to him.
At the same time, Suzu’s best friend begins a massive search to figure out who Dragon is, and what is the meaning of those bruises…
Now, in case you missed the point, “Belle” means “Beautiful girl” or “Beauty,” while the Dragon, with his huge, slightly hunched body, cloak, and long, snarled locks of hair, bears a strong resemblance to Disney’s version of the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, a resemblance only strengthened by Dragon’s collection of AI servants.
Just in case you missed the resemblance, there is a scene with the two dancing in the Dragon’s hidden castle, with the camera soaring up above them as they go around a very familiar ballroom floor.
But Belle is not a simple remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast set in a virtual world, even if we got these deliberate callbacks thrown in. Instead, there is a far darker set of secrets at the heart of the story back in the real world, and we get to see the shy, withdrawn and somewhat sad Suzu suddenly burst out of her shell and stand up and be brave.
It’s a beautifully written progression, with a lot of solid characters backing things up. If I had a complaint to make, I would point out that perhaps there are too many arcs for too many characters, but it is a minor grumble.
This time around, U is far more complex and fleshed out than Oz ever was — and yet it is far less visually appealing. Gone is the bright color palette, and even though the flying whales are still there, they are dark colored and often lost in the mists. While Summer Wars at least raised question about their place in OZ (and had them enter into the later events in the movie), here they are just part of the world with no explanation given for their presence, although there is just the faintest hint that they might be helping later on.
But not much of one.
Once again, the story plays on how many people from different backgrounds are part of U, from celebrities to troublemakers (and including some thoroughly toxic people they uncover in their search for Dragon), and the revelation that a lot of seemingly unlikely characters around Suzu also belong. It’s a nice touch that so many of those around Suzu have figured out that she is Belle, including the members of the choir.
Perhaps they recognized her singing voice.
I suspect that the choice to switch out OZ for U might have been driven by the idea of the automatic avatar, generated from your personal data, with its suggestions of a revelation of your inner self. I have to wonder how well such a notion would actually sell as a surprising number of people do put a lot of effort into creating their virtual avatars — whether in some MMORPG or elsewhere — and fancying them up, to the point where some people will actually buy cosmetically upgraded armor or similar bits of virtual Bling.
And why couldn’t the different interface and avatar generating have just been “upgrades” to OZ since the last time we saw it?
The film is spectacular, particularly in those scenes set in U, with a stunning set of landscapes during the first trek to the secret castle, lots of clouds, flying creatures, and, of course, those pods of flying whales, often carrying lots of speakers for Belle’s concerts. The real world — mostly set in a smaller rural town, is also beautifully realized. Hosoda doesn’t spend quite as much time on nature as Miyazaki does, but his recreation of the small town, its surroundings, and, at the end, even a glimpse of Tokyo are all solid and believable.
It does everything so well, in fact, that I find it very hard to explain why I find it all vaguely…unsatisfying.
Part of it is that it goes on too long. And I think part of it is that some of the elements involving Suzu and her fellow students do not pay off as well as they should — either they are too rushed, as in one rather late romantic twist, or they distract from the important story because we have been deliberately led to misunderstand them (as in one arc with Suzu and another student).
And, yes, I will admit that it is probably at least partly due to the heavy shadow of Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time hanging over this one.
After all, they raise the bar far too high.
But it is still an amazing and beautiful film, and I am so thankful that Mamoru Hosoda is out there making incredible films full of imagination and wild new worlds. I hope he will continue doing so for many more years.
And yes, Belle is definitely worth seeing.
I just wish it were a little more.
That’s the human condition…
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