Suzu is a quiet schoolgirl who suffered a tragic loss when she was a child, but in the virtual world of U she is an idol singer beloved by millions. But she risks it all to help a troubled soul who also has appeared in this online world.
In 2009 Mamoru Hosada released Summer Wars, which was partly set in a VR world called OZ, a vast cyber landscape filled with the colorful avatars of those logged in to it. (I remember, in particular, the girl's avatar with the "ears"- VERY kawaii.) I also remember that the poor Hayabusa spacecraft, which In Real Life returned the first asteroid samples to Earth, got weaponized in the movie. (It was re-named there, but it was clear that the Hayabusa space probe was intended.) In fact, a LOT of stuff happened in Summer Wars.
Then, last year, Hosada released Belle. It, too, is set in a vast cyberscape (called U this time) that is also filled with the colorful avatars of the logged-in. And, while no innocent space probes were maligned in the making of THIS film, Belle also has a lot of "stuff" happening in it. (Meaning that it goes off on some unexpected tangents.)
Now, this is a slight (though I think unavoidable) spoiler, and you'd never guess this from the Japanese title of the movie, but if you consider the female protagonist's U name, which is the U.S. title- AND if you look carefully in the background art of the DVD/Blu-Ray- something awfully familiar may spring out at you. If this had JUST been a re-telling of a Tale As Old As Time, I would have been pretty irritated (and Hosada might have been the subject of lawsuits); as it is, a portion (though really only a small portion-remember, lots of tangents here) of the movie resembles, in backgrounds and the staging of a particular scene or two (though NOT so much in music or character design), another version of the same Tale As Old As Time, in that case told by a company that is pretty touchy about anything resembling their OWN telling of such Tales. But again, this is only a fairly small part of the film. And the music, in particular, is quite different- while that OTHER version of the story features catchy "show tunes", "Belle's" (Suzu's) songs are more like haunting ballads. The music in Belle is extremely well done, which you'd have a right to expect in a show about an "ugly duckling" girl who has gained fame in the cyberworld with her voice. (She isn't really ugly at all- she just has one physical feature that's considered unattractive in Japan- and, interestingly, her avatar has an even more obvious presentation of that same feature.)
To be honest, my favorite scene in the movie doesn't happen in U at all- it happens in Suzu's "real" world, and involves one of the most awkward- and hilarious- misfires of a Love Confession that ever was (though one, thankfully, rescued through another one of Suzu's efforts.) Hosada is really good with these sorts of comical personal interactions (Mirai had plenty of them), and frankly I might have preferred more of those over the movie's homage (or maybe imitation?) of that OTHER show, no matter HOW much I liked the music here. (And I really DID like the music here.)
There were a few other things I wondered about. For one thing, that past crisis: it seemed to me that that child was not in immediate danger (as long as they stayed put; I re-watched the scene to verify this), and a proper rescue unit could have been summoned, while individual heroics could easily have resulted in TWO lives lost. But I suppose that's a judgment call.
Another thing I wondered about is how much information one can glean from a user's IP address. At one point, despite a roomful of tech equipment, Suzu and her band of supporters have to resort to subtle auditory and visual clues in someone's webcast to physically track them down. I know people can be located within a few hundred feet with a cellphone signal, and we're shown that the "U App" is sometimes used on a cellphone. It just seemed like there should have been a better way to find that party. (Still, I know PC's have their limitations for tracking: Microsoft's Games software thinks I live one city over, and while they are very good at picking ads targeting my (older) demographic, really, those concerns are NOT universally applicable even in my age group; I seldom worry about "emptying my bowels every morning", much less "toenail fungus", which their ads were convinced I had for the LONGEST time.)
The third question Belle raised for me was why so many people here either chose, or were assigned, those chibi/cherubic avatars. It's explained that some of these are just AI programs (i.e., bots), but Suzu's pal/promoter/technician, Hiroka, has an avatar of this sort as well. I'd find an avatar like that pretty embarrassing, and would think these were just chosen by Hosada for cuteness, rather than something the online participants would usually WANT.
Years ago I read a book on screenplay writing which critiqued various movie screenplays; one that it disapproved of was for the movie The Abyss, which it criticized for being a collection of separate arcs rather than a unified story. Belle is not QUITE that bad; things DO follow from other things, but the story's abrupt change in focus in its latter part may be a little disorienting. (On the other hand, there's something to be said for a story that does not go where you're led to believe it might, if there's still a logical connection between things. It's not exactly a true bait-and-switch show, which is good, since I HATE bait-and-switch shows.) Overall, it's kind of a revisiting of Summer Wars, except this time the film's crises are more personal than apocalyptic. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: MPAA rating PG. Includes domestic violence, and a tragic death.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD/Blu-Ray
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Belle © 2021 Studio Chizu
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