As it turns out, Suzu is spending her time as a popstar in the parallel world of “U”, a virtual reality that promises a new beginning and a fresh start, something extremely promising for a teenager uncomfortable in her own skin. As the internet popstar Bell (to be clear, spelt without an “e” as in the title, as Suzu’s name translates to “Bell” in English) she finds immediate viral fame, something that quickly brings her into contact with another famous – or rather, infamous – denizen of U: “The Beast”, with whom Suzu feels a mysterious kinship.
In some ways, Belle could be seen as riffing on our increasing desire to occupy fully-visualised virtual social spaces – as seen for example, with games like Fortnite and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, acting as areas for concerts or interviews, and allowing people the ability to mingle during lockdown. But it’s also much more fundamentally about the whole nature of online communication, and the way it can facilitate both personal transformation and self-reflection.
“I think the fact that there is this other world where we can be another version of ourselves [helps to show] that we are not just what we show to society,” Hosoda tells BBC Culture. “Belle and Suzu are so different that they’re virtually different people, but they’re actually the same person. Sometimes we end up believing that we are only that one side of ourselves, but actually we have many dimensions. And learning that and believing that helps us to be more free.”
Hosoda’s fantasies of digital living
Hosoda’s directorial career began around the turn of the millennium, and as his filmography has grown, parenthood and the lives of children have clearly become his pet themes. His previous film, 2018’s Mirai, explores a father becoming a stay-at-home parent for the first time. Before that, 2015’s Wolf Children and 2012’s The Boy and the Beast both see single parents fear over where their children’s independence will lead them, as well as just how much influence they hold over the shape of their lives. But alongside this focus on the family, a more specific interest he has repeatedly explored has been the role that the internet plays in the development of modern-day children – it’s something he first touched upon in his very first feature film, 2000’s Digimon: The Movie and has returned to in 2009’s Summer Wars, about a high-school student getting involved in an online world called Oz, and now Belle.
Indeed this motif of children seeking guidance and refuge in fantastical digital realms is perhaps the most striking element of his work – even in his films that don’t explicitly deal with the internet like Mirai, where the young protagonist’s family tree is presented as a sort of traversable web space. His films often visually reflect the influence of digital culture by having one foot in and one foot out of reality – for example, while his characters may be designed with a subdued and natural look, they very often act with outsized, cartoonish reactions. Thematically, the mundane typically clashes with the otherworldly as his young or adolescent protagonists navigate their rapidly changing lives by doing something physically impossible – time travel in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Mirai, being spirited away to another dimension in The Boy and the Beast, and entering a virtual reality in Summer Wars and Belle.