One of this year’s animated Oscar contenders could be anime veteran Mamoru Hosoda’s dazzling Cannes debut “Belle” (Studio Chizu, GKids), inspired by the French “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale, about rural school kids who take on alter egos in a digital universe, based on their strengths and weaknesses. “Belle” could mark the filmmaker’s second animated feature Oscar nomination after “Mirai.” The movie screens October 23 at Hollywood’s Animation Is Film festival before its later Oscar-qualifying GKids release.
Hosoda updates the 18th-century fairy tale that has spawned countless movie adaptations, from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 black-and-white French classic to the Disney animated musical and its recent live-action remake, with a near-future story that combines “Ready Player One” with “Eighth Grade.” The movie’s naturalistic setting is the filmmaker’s birthplace Kamiichi, a remote western island. “It’s a very rural place,” Hosoda said. “It’s a part of Japan that is dying away. No normal kids are going there. And it’s a very difficult place to live.”
On the other hand, Hosoda wanted the digital universe U (designed by the “Wolfwalkers” team Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart), to be “the center of the world, somewhere everybody is gathering,” he said. “And it’s very global because we use the internet every day now. And the image of the internet we have is just this browser page we see. But that’s not really the internet. That’s just a surface that we use. It’s just an interface. And I kept wondering, if we did dive into the internet, what kind of world would be hiding beneath that browser page? And this is what I imagined.”
Needless to say, “Belle” updates the two leads. Hosoda altered Beast to differentiate him from past versions: Ryu (Takeru Satoh) is more “dragon” than hairy mammal. “What I like in the Beast is that you have this duality between his violent side and his fragile side,” the filmmaker said. “When it comes to the old ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ this male figure is closer to the violence they have within them because they’re also a symbol of the patriarchy because it’s an 18th-century tale. But now, this patriarchy shouldn’t be the main axis of the Beast. And that’s why I decided to lower the violence in the Beast and rather focus on the fragile, sensitive facet of him.”
And he places the angry Ryu into the U virtual universe, where he meets Belle, a beauty who has wowed U with her singing prowess. In real life, Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a shy, mousy high-schooler with freckles. The U algorithm reads each personality and places their essence into their avatar. Hosoda compares and contrasts the banal girl with her other personality Belle, who is a universal diva; the neglected teenager and angry warrior Ryu, and the dull country life and the vital internet.
“Because we tend to judge people by their appearance, this is the first access we have for a person,” said Hosoda. “The moment you create an account and you put your avatar, your profile, even if you’re not trying to make the most ideal of yourself, there is already the duality that is starting. This duality is also the theme of ‘Beauty and the Beast.'”
U not only offers attractive alternate realities but amplifies powerful emotions. “This is a very special world,” said Hosoda, “because in reality, we have a lot of things that hinder us. And some of our potential is just dying away. And in U, you can have the same soul, but maybe other possibilities as if you were having another life. And body sharing is possible technologically. I’ve seen early demos and first attempts. So the movie might seem sci-fi and in the future, but it’s something that could happen to us. And I wanted to focus on this idea: it’s me, but not me. And this me that is not completely me but is still me could maybe have this new way of life and discover new things. I called it U because it’s you, it’s the alphabet U, and it’s like me and you and you. It’s also the ultimate utopia. And I wanted to see these other possibilities bloom in another world.”
At the end of the movie, the unseen Suzu comes out of the shadows to emerge a hero, wet and bleeding in the pouring rain, as she fights to save a weaker soul. “Since she is protecting someone that is dear to her, that’s the definition of beauty,” said Hosoda.