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Anime film ‘Belle’ shows when parasocial relationships are not enough

For the past few decades, it has been taken for granted that science fiction stories take place in virtual worlds, from the early neon-studded stylings of Tron to the hedonistic pop culture temple of Ready Player One. The stories once treated these places like a fantasy world on par with Middle-earth or Hyrule, but as we approached them in real life they became much more monotonous, maybe even more common. With that shift, we’ve seen the real and virtual world increasingly collide, and that connection between the two forms the core of the new anime film Belle, which hits US theaters in January.

Belle is the latest film from Mamoru Hosoda, the director who gave us time travel adventures like The Girl Who Jumped Through Time that brought Mirai. But he’s also known for Summer Wars, a film that posits a world where everything is connected in the virtual sphere, not just for gaming but also for work, finance, and healthcare. In 2009, this seemed a bit of a stretch, but as companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon expanded, the concept got eerily forward-thinking. Now, with Belle, Hosoda is once again tackling the gap between the real and the virtual world, a film that divides its time between rural Japan and the computerized world of “U”.

Belle is the story of Suzu Naito, a “country singer” who lives alone with her father and still struggles with the trauma of losing her mother a few years ago. When a friend sends her an invitation to U, she finds it an escape from her trauma, a place where she is beautiful and can sing. Her first appearance goes viral quickly, the clip spreads quickly, and her phone explodes with notifications in a snappy way by Dear Evan Hansen. She becomes a sensation, but her newfound fame falls apart when one of her concerts is interrupted by a player known only as “The Dragon”. Suzu / Belle becomes fascinated by the dragon and begins an investigation into his identity while self-appointed vigilante groups work to track him down and drive him out of U.

Studio Chizu

The world and technology of U are interesting, accessed via an app and a set of special earphones. Apparently, the earbuds can overlay both vision and sound, and they form a person’s avatar based on their biometric data. It is certainly a step ahead of the bulky VR headsets seen in Ready Player One, or just the “theater of fantasy” that many films and TV shows use, where the virtual is an actual “space” with rooms and buildings etc only exists in the mind of the user. Here it’s more like stepping into the Persona 5 metaverse, complete with avatars reflecting a person’s true self.

There is no such thing as “If you die in the game, you die in real life” in U, but the biggest threat is still treated like this: To be “unveiled” means losing your anonymity and revealing your true form to the world of U. . on which a user literally disappears from the virtual arena. It’s strange to see this as a plot hook when social media is overabundant with real names and verified accounts, but this is a fantasy story after all.

Belle and the dragon

Studio Chizu

As such, it is influenced by other fantasy works, particularly Disney’s classic animated film Beauty and the Beast. Both of the main characters are called Belle, and the dragon’s design and temperament is very similar to that of the beast; the mixture of animals merged into a hunched, brooding creature, the mysterious castle with a band of adorable servants. There’s even a damaged portrait over the mantelpiece! After years of complaining by anime fans that American films “steal” anime (Kimba the White Lion, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, and Perfect Blue), it’s funny to borrow an anime so blatantly from the West. Cant wait for the inevitable shot-to-shot comparison videos on YouTube. Belle even creates the iconic ballroom dancing scene (notable at the time for her early use of CG).

The animation in Belle isn’t particularly groundbreaking, although it certainly makes a great movie. The world of U is represented as a city with sprawling towers populated by flying avatars. Animation enables filmmakers to give each character, regardless of size or shape, a unique avatar that best suits that person. Suzu becomes a beautiful woman, but others are portrayed as babies, fairies, and cute animals. What distinguishes the dragon is that he is such a dark character, with bruises scattered across his back like a mushroom.

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