Ryû to Sobakasu no Hime
2021 / 121m - Japan
Adventure, Fantasy - Animation
Belle poster

Mamoru Hosoda's latest has been racking up rave reviews for quite a while now, but unless a Japanese film hits Netflix (or one of the other global streamers) it still takes a while before people from smaller (read less profitable) nations have a chance to watch it. I was pleasantly surprised that Belle [Ryû To Sobakasu no Hime] did land a theater release in Belgium, and so for the first time in eight years, I managed to watch an anime in a movie theater. Epic Hosoda can go either way or me, so I didn't know quite know what to expect, as it turns out this film could very well become Hosoda's magnum opus.

screen capture of Belle [Ryû to Sobakasu no Hime]

Personally, I seem to prefer Hosoda's more grounded films. All his work contains varying degrees of fantasy influences, but the more conceptual and high fantasy he gets, the less invested I tend to be in his films. That suggested Belle would end up one of his lesser films for me, as it plays like a revisit of Summer Wars, mixed with a heavy dose of Beauty and the Beast and maybe even some Paprika to top it off. Hosoda really doesn't hold back here, going all in on the fantasy bits, yet somehow that extra dash of grandeur was precisely what this film needed.

It's pretty impossible to narrow down what this film is about exactly, as Hosoda works in a myriad of themes and angles. At its most obvious, Belle is an exploration (I wouldn't say critique - there's both the good and the bad) of our digital world and identities, but there's also a strong focus on personal loss, child abuse and some less intrusive high school troubles. It's a film about growing up in two imperfect worlds and making the best of each one to come out a better person in both. At the same time, it's also an epic story of friendship that takes place in a sprawling fantasy world, so you can pretty much get out of it what you want.

The plot revolves around Suzu, a young kid who saw her world crumble when her mom died in a rescue operation. Unable to cope with the loss, Suzu turns inward and struggles to make something of her life. Things change when she gets an invitation to join the online social network U. Avatars are automatically assigned to those who join, based on their inherent potential. Suzu's avatar is a showstopper and when it turns out she can sing too, it doesn't take long before she becomes U's ultimate pop star. People are smitten by Suzu's skill and appearance, but she finds herself inevitably drawn to The Beast, a mysterious avatar who likes to cause an uproar.

screen capture of Belle [Ryû to Sobakasu no Hime]

Hosoda's rising reputation has given him access to much bigger budgets, which he has spent graciously on more complexity in his art style and more detailed animation. At least, when it comes to the background and fantasy elements. His human characters still alternate between fully detailed and oddly abstract, sometimes lacking facial expressions and/or color nuances. It's a peculiar choice which doesn't fit in with the rest of the film. I understand it has become somewhat of a signature for Hosoda, but I feel it's time to let go, as it stand out unfavorably. It's a minor quirk, as the rest of the film looks absolutely stunning. From the impressive character designs in U (Belle has such a distinctive look) to the crazy detailed backgrounds both inside and outside the digital space, your eyes won't know where to look first. Landing somewhere between classic Ghibli and contemporary Shinkai, it's not the most original or unique-looking anime, but it sure is a sight to behold.

As much as I loved the visuals, I think the score is where Hosoda truly hit the mark. Many of the film's key moments are based around songs, which may cause people with an aversion to J-Pop to cringe. Don't worry, the songs are much stronger than the average commercial Japanese headbopper, with a lot of the attention going to the ethereal-sounding vocals. The music really takes center stage in Belle, and the result is magnificent. One massive word of warning: the US dub comes with completely redone songs, which sound exactly like utterly bland US teen pop (the likes of Justin Bieber or Selena Gomez). If there is one film where you want to stick with the original dub, it is this one. Not in the least because the character voices are also very distinctive and add lots of flavor and individuality. Exceptional and exemplary.

screen capture of Belle [Ryû to Sobakasu no Hime]

The film lasts two hours, which is quite long for an anime feature. Hosoda has a lot of ground to cover, and he really needs every single minute. Even at 120 minutes, the film still feels quite dense and heavy. I don't think there's a lot that could've been cut (not without losing any of the core themes) and for a film that wants to swing big it's no doubt a risk Hosoda had to take, but people who aren't entirely on board with Belle (for whatever reason) may feel it's pretty bloated. It's a warranted critique, but I'm glad Hosoda didn't slim down and went all-in. Belle is a full-on "go big or go home" project, for better or for worse.

I'm quite confident this is a film that grows with multiple viewings, as there is quite a lot to see and to unpack. Regardless, I was pleasantly surprised to see Hosoda nail a high-concept fantasy film like this. It's difficult to say where he'll go from here, but it feels like he finally made an indelible mark with Belle. The splendid animation and detailed art style, the wondrous score and quality dubbing and the imaginative fantasy elements support a wealth of well-grounded themes, giving life to this epic undertaking. It's my favorite Hosoda so far, and well worth a trip to the movie theater if the option is there.