Oscar-nominated director and animator Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film Belle, which earned the title of third highest-grossing Japanese movie of 2021, is set to premiere in the U.S. on January 14, 2022. The film follows Suzu, an introverted high schooler, who recovers her ability to sing when she adopts the persona of Belle, a beloved singing sensation in the virtual world of U. There she also befriends Beast, a gruff and mysterious dragon, who is accused of disturbing the peace in U and is at risk of having his identity revealed by a vigilante group. As Suzu embarks on a journey of self-discovery, she learns to embrace herself and protect what’s important to her.
Belle is Hosoda’s modern reinterpretation of Beauty and the Beast, complete with his signature exploration of the digital world. What attracted him to the fairytale is Beast’s duality, having both a violent and gentle-hearted side, which he saw parallels to the internet’s ability to show another side of yourself: the you in reality and the you in the virtual world. The director often draws inspiration from his personal experiences, from meeting his wife’s family influencing Summer Wars and his desire to have children bringing forth Wolf Children, and Belle is no exception. “I have a six year old daughter, and she acts like a confident princess at home. But when she goes to kindergarten, she just kind of shuts down and becomes a little shy, only playing with certain friends,” Hosoda said. “Even a six-year-old can have different personalities in different environments, which is reflected in Suzu and Belle.”
Most importantly, the director wanted to portray modern day values in his version of the fairytale. “Beauty and the Beast is an 18th century folk tale in a time when the beautiful girl needs a charming prince and they have a happily ever after. Today’s definition of happiness is completely different,” Hosoda shared. “After Suzu finds who she really is through this journey, she becomes strong enough to help other people. I see that as today’s definition of beauty and happiness.” To bring this film to life, it took three years from ideation to completion, in part due to the pandemic. Hosoda’s team worked down to the wire, completing the film only 10 days before its global premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The hard work paid off, as Belle’s premiere earned a 14-minute standing ovation and positive reception.
While the pandemic brought some operational challenges in the form of remote work, it also opened up doors for the director to recruit international talent more easily. Coincidentally enough, the internet is what connected him to British architect Eric Wong, who was tasked with designing Hosoda’s ambitious vision for the digital world of U. Hosoda has dedicated 20 years of his career creating internet-themed films, so he’s thought extensively about how the digital world has been changing and how that should be visually depicted. The greatest challenge to creating U was striking the right balance between how realistic and unrealistic it should be. He sought to build upon the internet that viewers are familiar with, but go beyond and present a larger-than-life digital world that has yet to be realized.
With the metaverse being a hot topic, Hosoda commented, “A lot of companies are releasing visual concepts, but none of them are interesting enough. Frankly, I feel like U’s visuals are much more intriguing.” He continued with a chuckle, “I kind of want to say to these companies that you have to make the metaverse more appealing or nobody will want to do anything with it.”
Another key contributor on Belle was Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, and this collaboration stems from a fortuitous meeting. When Cartoon Saloon was in Japan to promote its film Wolfwalkers, there was a meeting arranged with Hosoda since he made his own film about wolves, Wolf Children. “We found out that we share a lot of the same thinking and ideals like we both side with wolves over humans, so we hit it off very well,” he gleefully shared and praised the studio’s beautiful and abstract design style. With the pandemic keeping people at home, the director took the opportunity to approach Cartoon Saloon and extend an offer to collaborate on Belle. Hosoda underscores Cartoon Saloon and its co-founder and filmmaker Tomm Moore’s significant contributions and direction to the film, particularly in shaping the visually rich scene where Belle travels to Beast’s castle.
Alongside stunning visuals, the film delivers grand and emotive music, which represent Suzu’s feelings as she learns about herself and explores U. This made singing talent an essential quality when casting for the titular character. Searching and auditioning various candidates, from musical actors and voice actors to musicians and actors who can sing, Hosoda felt that Kaho Nakamura stood out from the rest. “We picked her for her ability to express the emotion behind the lyrics,” he explained. “Even though the songs are in Japanese, I thought that people, no matter where they’re from, would feel moved by her voice.”
Hosoda directed his music team, composed of three Japanese members and one from Sweden, to create music that echoed the story of a girl struggling to find herself. In his eyes, commercial pop music wasn’t going to complement his film’s message. Letting the music speak for itself, the director pointed to “U” and “Lend Me Your Voice,” as songs representative of Belle’s spirit. As sung in the movie’s festive opening song, Belle is a film that encourages viewers to “trust in your racing heartbeat” and “follow the path that makes your heart dance.”