Suzu Naito is a 17-year-old high schooler in the rural Kochi Prefecture on the Japanese island of Shikoku, a shy and ordinary girl save for an extraordinary singing voice that she never uses in public. Her reluctance can be traced back to childhood, when she witnessed the drowning of her musically inclined mother who died while rescuing a stranded child. (Internet responses, attacking her mother as a have-a-go hero, do little to comfort the young Suzu.)
Suzu nurses an unspoken crush on her childhood chum Shinobu. She makes little social impact in a classroom that includes popular girl Ruka and superstar canoeist Kamishin, until the day she signs up with U. This virtual space, pitched somewhere between Instagram and The Fifth Element, allows users to live as idealised avatars. “You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U,” a voiceover explains.
Thus, Suzu is reborn as Belle, a pink-haired, singing beauty who emerges on a digitised whale to great acclaim and millions of likes. But her popularity, even with the assistance of Suzu’s computer whizz best pal Hiroka, isn’t always fun. Online criticism hurts, ruthless moderators police the virtual world, and a wounded, marauding Dragon crashes a Belle concert. It wouldn’t be an update of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1756 fairy tale – replete with a nod to Disney’s whirling 1991 ballroom scene – without a beast.
Though not quite as extravagantly imaginative as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Wolf Children, the eighth feature from Mamoru Hosada marries dazzling spectacle, high-octane action and social commentary. Belle’s best scenes, however, are not the riotous tableaux that play under the heroine’s J-pop ballads, but the blush-making adolescent exchanges, quiet family concerns and, in a late plot twist, a powerful (family-viewing appropriate) dramatisation of childhood abuse.
Belle, the third-highest-grossing Japanese film of 2021, received a 14-minute standing ovation in Cannes, where its daring, eclectic visuals sent the crowds as wild as any of Belle’s online fans.