‘Belle’, or its Japanese title ‘竜とそばかすの姫, Ryū to Sobakasu no Hime’ which literally translate to ‘The Dragon and the Freckled Princess’ is a music infused sci-fi anime film written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda and produced by Studio Chizu, with its art done in CG.
The premise of Belle follows character Suzu Naito, voiced by Kaho Nakamura, who is a young schoolgirl self-conscious about her looks and doesn’t feel like she fits in with her classmates. She also has struggled to maintain her relationship with her father due her depression from the passing of her mother. Suzu used to sing a lot with her mum as a child, but unfortunately hasn’t been able to since she lost her mother.
Suzu also has a crush on her childhood friend, Shinobu Hisatake, voiced by Ryō Narita, but feels that she cannot associate with him anymore because he is handsome, popular, talented, and believes he is way out of her league.
To save the day and help her friend along in her emotional recovery and build her self-confidence, Suzu’s best friend and computer genius Hiroka, voiced by Lilas Ikuta, known as one half of the Japanese music duo Yoasobi, introduces Suzu to the app ‘U’, a virtual world where you can be anything you want to be, with your avatar’s design inspired from your own biometrics. Suzu’s avatar ends up being a long pink-haired freckled beauty, and she chooses the alias ‘Bell’, which is the English translation of her own name.
In the world of U, Bell finds her voice, is affectionally called ‘Belle’ by her fans in relation to her beauty and the French term, and she also meets an angel avatar and beast looking character, the latter of which she is intrigued by. Eventually, the relationships that Belle has in U soon end up finding reasons to merge with the real world.
The character design of Bell/Belle specifically is stunning, and the way that the characters move in the film admittedly looked a bit strange at first, but that’s only because I’m so used to hand drawn 2D Japanese animation and not anime in CG.
The story, although a bit heavy, is not difficult to follow at all, and its unpredictability is part of its charm. It is clear that Mamoru Hosoda put a lot of love into this film.
Although the story is cohesive, surprising, and heartfelt, the true hero of Belle is its music. Voice actress Kaho Nakamura even helped write the lyrics for some of the songs that she sings, including ‘A Million Miles Away/はなればなれの君へ/Hanarebanare no kimi e’ and my favourite, ‘Gales of Song/歌よ/Uta yo’. The music of Belle currently has versions in original Japanese, English, and French at present on the film’s official YouTube channel, and there is every intention that they will release other language versions of these incredible songs in the not-too-distant future. At present, only the Japanese and English versions are available on streaming services. Personally, I prefer the Japanese songs, but when it comes to watching anime, I always opt for watching with Japanese Language and English subtitles.
When Belle started singing in the film for the first time, I honestly had goosebumps. It felt like an exhilarating and captivating out of body experience, and I would be lying if I told you that I was fine throughout the movie – I was sobbing and cried for almost half of the feature’s run time. I believe writer and director Hosoda made the best decision for Suzu to have the same voice actress and singing voice as Belle. Some anime have different singing voices and different voices for alternate versions of a character, but in this instance with Belle, it just made the transition feel a lot more natural and believable.
If you can see this incredible anime on the big screen, do so. It’s visually stunning, as well as pleasing on the ears, and I am so grateful I got to see it in cinemas. I’m just a tad bit sad I missed seeing it at IMAX (probably forgivable, it only had two sessions at my local IMAX).
Belle is a mature animated cinematic masterpiece which visits topics of depression, grief, acceptance, kindness, friendship, courage, forgiveness, and self-love. It is a must-see experience for all anime fans everywhere, for folks who love international films or specifically Japanese cinema, and it will aggressively, effortlessly and successfully tug on your heartstrings.