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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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Photograph: © 2021 Studio Chizu

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

It girls, grieving high-schoolers and cyber dragons collide in Mamoru Hosoda’s dazzling anime skew on Beauty and the Beast

Thought The Greatest Showman had cornered the market in soaring, punch-the-air anthems of teenage self-actualisation? Mamoru Hosoda’s cyber fairy-tale is basically wall-to-wall bangers, all backdropped by virtual worlds that wash over you in waves of world-building so detailed and epic, they’d make William Gibson’s eyes pop. It’s another masterclass from the Studio Chizu founder: a fusion of hand-drawn and CG styles that keeps shapeshifting Belle in weird and wonderful directions.

The story follows Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), a Japanese high-schooler in Japan’s Kochi Prefecture. As a child she lost her mum in an accident that she still doesn’t fully understand and has become distant from her well-meaning dad, instead burying her grief in a wildly-popular virtual world called ‘U’. There, she’s the pink-haired Belle – and thanks to biometric data that amps up an online avatar with its users inner strengths, she’s a superstar pop icon.

She travels U on the back of a blue whale with a hundred amps strapped to its back – yes, this film features an actual doof whale – belting out bangers to the multitude. Then a beast appears – the Dragon – appears with and not to spoil it… there’s a castle, a library and a rose involved.

Smartly, Hosoda spins that oh-so-familiar fairy tale into a virtual fable where the beast is just one of millions who stand to be ‘unmasked’ – upping the stakes for Suzu too in a way that pays off in the film’s soaring climax. 

The Dragon is strikingly designed with oryx horns and a patchwork of vivid bruises on its back – a hipster Beast who even inspire imitators to get matching tattoos. The sources of those bruises becomes the story’s key mystery as Suzu surfs between the virtual and real worlds in search of the man (or woman) behind the avatar.

Like 2012’s Wolf Children, Belle-Suzu’s search feels informed by the death of Hosoda’s own mum. That aching sense of loss bleeds into the escapism in a way that will feel comfortingly familiar to lovers of My Neighbor Totoro. And although Hosoda takes its message of inner mettle and healing in a radically different direction, he shares with Totoro director Hayao Miyazaki a deep empathy for young people that pulses off Belle in warm rays.

Belle is also incredibly funny, gear-shifting from soaring uplift and plunging lows to bone-dry comic moments that Hosoda edits perfectly to nail the endless awkwardness of high-school romantic encounters. The supporting characters are a delight, too: from Suzu’s zero-bullshit bestie Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta), an acid-tongued hacker genius (is there any other kind?) who propels the story forward; to a gaggle of mother-hen music teachers; to the dorky but sweet Shinjirô, the only member of the school’s canoeing club.

One naff plot misstep aside (you’ll know it when you see it), the story gallops along in kid-friendly fashion, while there’s a tonne of visual invention crammed into every frame for grown-ups. The soundtrack will be a Spotify favourite for all ages IRL, too. It’s high time to mention Studio Chizu in the same breath as Studio Ghibli, because this one is an absolute feast.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Mamoru Hosoda
  • Screenwriter:Mamoru Hosoda
  • Cast:
    • Kaho Nakamura
    • Koji Yakusho
    • Tina Tamashiro
    • Rina Izuta
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