REVIEW: 竜とそばかすの姫 [Ryû to sobakasu no hime] [Belle] [2021]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 121 minutes
    Release Date: July 16th, 2021 (Japan) / January 14th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Toho / GKIDS
    Director(s): Mamoru Hosoda
    Writer(s): Mamoru Hosoda

Come now, change the world.

If Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) had her way, she’d melt into the floor never to be seen or heard from again. It’s been like this for the decade since her mother put on a lifejacket to wade through the choppy river and save another girl her age stranded and crying in the middle of the water. The girl came ashore in that jacket. Her mother didn’t. Suzu has often wondered why she wasn’t more important than that stranger. Why staying with her and her father (Kôji Yakusho) didn’t take precedence. She’s struggling through a perpetual malaise with her father providing too much space, her best friend Hiro (Ikura) too little, and her crush Shinobu (Ryô Narita) forever playing protector. With their help, however, she’ll find her answer.

For anyone going into Mamoru Hosoda‘s latest anime Ryû to sobakasu no hime [Belle] under the belief that it’s a variation of (specifically Disney’s) Beauty and the Beast, the previous paragraph won’t sound familiar. That’s because this is very much a riff on that material rather than an actual remake. Neither Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, nor Linda Woolverton earns a credit because Hosoda is utilizing the tropes inherent to their evolving work rather than their narrative itself. We don’t even know a “Beast” is coming until about halfway through. Before then it’s all about Suzu reclaiming her voice (singing was a passion inspired by her mother) by way of a rebirth as “Belle” within the popular virtual app world known as “U.”

Joining was Hiro’s idea (she’s a cute teenage gremlin who hilariously revels in the power she wields from behind a massive computer screen, rebranding and selling her mousy friend as an international J-pop sensation). She knew that the magic would flow the moment Suzu had an avenue to express herself without the anxiety of people in her hometown watching. Dealing with the inevitable backlash of anything successful on the internet isn’t as smooth (Hiro is too good at what she does), but “Belle” eventually settles down enough to comfortably share her feelings through original songs that even anonymous listeners who want to hate them can’t quite ignore. Her confidence doesn’t necessarily bleed into reality, though. Not until someone in need coaxes her into using that strength by reflex.

That person is known as “Dragon” in the “U” framework. He’s a beast bestowed with unnatural toughness and rage who’s nearly undefeated in the game’s martial arts section. Players say he fights dirty and label him a menace to the point where a self-proclaimed arbiter of justice (Toshiyuki Morikawa‘s Justin) places him in his crosshairs to be doxed. The creators of “U” allow everyone to remain anonymous due to a specially coded system that seamlessly connects the game to its users’ biometrics. Justin has a light beam affixed to his “superhero” suit that dissolves the firewall maintaining this illusion, revealing an avatar’s identity before punting them off the system. He seeks to rid “U” of “Dragon” once and for all, unwittingly pushing him onto “Belle’s” path.

“Belle” sees herself in “Dragon.” She sees the pain and hurt that has trapped her into shy silence all these years. Her fear manifested as a psychosomatic inability to sing in real life. His suffering takes physical form in “U” as marbleized bruises adorning his cape and body like tattoos. The Artificial Intelligence bots that serve to protect “Dragon’s” lair can sense that kindred spirit—especially one known as Angel (HANA). They help her find him so she can attempt to provide comfort. She strives to be his protector unprompted much like Shinobu does with her in reality. “Dragon” initially rejects it (like she does) until trust and familiarity break down his defenses. The closer they get, however, the greater the chance Justin finds him too.

The humor Hosoda injects into the proceedings is infectiously relatable and absolutely unforgettable. Hiro is a personal favorite of mine thanks to her overzealous enthusiasm, but there’s also the unabashedly weird Kamishin (Shôta Sometani), a group of women who were in a choir with Suzu’s mother, and the general troll-ish nature of the internet finding its way onto their screens. The awkward teen love on display provides some fun moments (there’s one where two characters who like each other literally just stare mouth agape upon discovering as much) as well as Justin’s sanctimonious ego desperate to prove his worth to no one considering the “U” creators purposefully left their world unsupervised by police figures. Whether over-the-top or sweetly wholesome, the comedy is both effective and consistent.

So too is the drama—and this film has plenty of it once we reach its surprising climax. Because while the main goal is to reawaken Suzu’s desire to live and love, she cannot do that without learning firsthand what it means to be the type of person her mother was the day she died. There’s no more powerful reason to tear off the mask you’ve been wearing for protection than to protect someone else who is without the means to do it alone. That’s what “Dragon” is for her. He’s a real person in desperate need of saving and, because of her authentic kindness (“Belle’s” celebrity and fame are all Hiro’s doing), Suzu has positioned herself to be the only one who’s able to truly help.

The subject matter surrounding “Dragon’s” issue may be triggering for some—so be warned. It’s handled with delicacy, though, thanks to Hosoda’s refusal to sensationalize for the sake of controversy or attention. He’s presenting a very real issue and he’s using our burgeoning technological reach (both to hide and repress hard truths and to ultimately conquer them) as a platform able to expose society’s cracks. Just look at the fandoms “Belle” and “Dragon” end up engaging despite no active recruitment. That’s the power of their message. She sings from her heart about love and loss. He acts from his to survive against all odds. They inspire simply by using “U” as an outlet for everything roiling inside them. They inspire each other to stand and face their fears.

To have that type of heartfelt message and still be able to entertain with phenomenal music and animation (the world of “U” is wild with eccentric avatars, massive circuit-board cities, and fun videogame allusions) is an embarrassment of riches. It’s an imaginative world with complex characters that never succumb to cliché. The romantic story threads aren’t cloying or convenient. The conflicts aren’t without emotional payoff. And the plot is multi-faceted in a way that subverts genre and expectations. Yes, there’s a “Belle” and a “Beast,” but they are always their own creation removed from any historical reference (beyond a dancing scene that obviously harkens back to “Tale As Old As Time”). They enter their fantasy world with eyes wide open to acquire the courage necessary to withstand reality.

courtesy of GKIDS

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