The Internet has been a staple of our daily lives for some time now. While I am old enough to remember a time with VHS tapes and – gasp – landlines for our phones – many are not.
And whether for good or for ill, the Net as a whole is an invention of humanity that has changed virtually everything. Like any other such invention, it has the potential for great good as well as the capacity for misuse. One cannot go through a single day without hearing about doxxing, Facebook addiction or some such misfortune that is the sole purview of our digital age.
Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle is a different take on the connectivity and lack of privacy that so characterize our lives now. It is a more positive spin on things – a fairy tale that raises some questions, answers others, and shines a light on the dangers of social media overuse even as it shows how (as in real life) it is often the users and not the technology itself that drive things. The director comes to this tale with an impressive pedigree behind him, including The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Wolf Children, and Summer Wars (the latter also touching on digital themes) I for one enjoyed the outing enough to write an article behind it.
The story starts simply enough. A young girl, Suzu Naito, has difficulty dealing with her mother’s death – she sacrificed herself to save a stranger’s child when Suzu was much younger.
Her daughter now has largely withdrawn from the world, but still carries on her mother’s legacy in a way by singing. This would be a fairly prosaic and perhaps boring tale without the addition of the Internet – Suzu gets drawn into the virtual world of U by a classmate of hers, and soon becomes an overnight sensation due to her singing voice.
The movie takes a more serious turn as Belle/Suzu (she names herself Belle, as Suzu = bell in Japanese) struggles to deal with her newfound fame amidst the normal trials and tribulations of growing up, including a crush on an upperclassman. In Hosada’s hands, that oft-used (and misused!) trope becomes infused with a certain delicacy that his earlier works are known for – The Girl Who Leapt Through Time turned adolescent love on its head with time-travelling antics. While that is a minor rather than major plot point in this work, it is nice to see that the director hasn’t lost his touch in the depiction of springtime romance.
What I feel makes this anime stand out (besides its gorgeous visuals – the wide-angle shots of Belle singing to the digital natives of U never grow old, to say nothing of the castle and other set pieces) is how it handles the issue of child abuse. Without spoiling anything too much, the issue of protecting others who are unable to defend themselves is central to the plot of Belle. It shows how society often assumes that parents will step into this role without question, and more than that – it also dares to show how the abused themselves must feel. The shot of one of the abused children in the movie, staring directly into the viewscreen accusingly and muttering “Help, help, help…people always say that, but never do it” is a powerful, haunting, and all too real reminder of the problems facing anyone in such a situation of victimhood.
The theme of digital privacy wends its way adroitly amidst these disparate elements. Belle/Suzu faces questions surrounding her newfound fame and the juxtaposition of off and online identities – should she let the world know who she is? It is even possible to maintain a boundary between private and public selves in this day and age? Things ratchet up a notch as the plot progresses and the identities of children get thrown into the mix. How can one know what is the right course of action when innocent lives are at stake? Corporations have the corporate veil, but to what extent should the identities of minors be protected – and can they be? While the movie opts for a defined ending and more questions answered than left hanging, the themes it raises are all too readily applicable to real-life situations – which I believe to be one of its strengths. In its final moments, it also shows how regardless of age, time, or distance, some connections transcend the real and virtual to show how strong we can be as humans.
Less a cautionary tale and more of a parable for our times, Belle is a visually and narratively compelling work that invites us to examine how human connection and bonds form
and are sustained. Stellar voice-acting work from the cast and deft cinematography are more reasons that you should check this one out, especially if you have enjoyed the director’s