Mamoru Hosoda‘s directing career basically started with the world of Digimon where he directed a few shorts, episodes and even the original Digimon movie. But where he really started to show off his directing chops was Samurai Champloo which has been often cited as one of the greatest anime shows right up there with Cowboy Bebop. It would then continue with the first film that he could truly call his own in the Girl Who Leapt Through Time. From there, Hosoda could have been content at that point but he would go on to direct more and more animated classics. Today, we take a look at Hosoda’s latest film, Belle and I don’t think any fan would be disappointed with this one.
Welcome to the World of U. U is the Ultimate Virtual Community and was created by 5 Sages called the Voices. They preside over the intellect of the community of five billion users. Just use the App and plug in. An avatar is called “AS” and the virtual world will create this avatar based on your biometrics. It is another reality, another you.
A singer named Belle (voiced by Kaho Nakamura) performs on the back of a flying whale surrounded by speakers. The music plays and the song is sung while being enjoyed by the spectators around her. Suddenly, Suzu wakes up from her sleep with her phone in her hand. She enjoys her breakfast with her dog and listens to the comments about her online persona. Let’s roll those credits.
Suzu takes the bus (please note that this route will expire in September), and then the monorail to where she goes to school. There she meets her friend, Hiro (voiced by Lilas Ikuta) where they talk about the popular girl, Ruka (voiced by Tina Tamashiro), and the sporty Kamishin (real name Shinjiro) (voiced by Shota Sometani). They also discuss Shinobu (voiced by Ryo Narita) who acts as Suzu’s protector ever since her mom died.
The scenes shift back to when Suzu was much younger and learned about music from her mother’s phone and playing with her family. But then her mother helped another child and saved him from drowning. Unfortunately the mother herself drowned in this heroic deed. However, the online social media world did not see it that way and left many hateful comments which caused Suzu to draw further within herself.
It is through this that she is tempted to try the World of “U” and give it a shot as it boasts a different reality and a different you. She can no longer sing like she once could in the real world due to her depression and lack of self confidence but in the world of “U”, she is the beautiful and amazing singer known as Belle. As she gains followers by the millions, she becomes perhaps the most popular person in this alternate reality. However, one day during a concert, it is invaded by an avatar simply known as the Dragon (voiced by Takeru Satoh) and her online world is changed forever.
The origins of this Dragon character becomes the focus of this story as Suzu with Hiro’s help try to figure out who this driving force really is (and at the same time Suzu finds out who she is as well). The climax of this story and the reveal is jaw dropping especially when considering the full implications of this character. As I’ve said many times, animation is a medium and this story is as strong as any live-action thriller. It’s acted beautifully and I really enjoyed the characters of this film. The story keeps you interested and the spectacles of “U” will keep your eyes dazzled as well.
It’s really difficult to find any negatives in the film, the “real world” and the World of “U” both keep the viewer in tune to the story and don’t really have any points in its over 120 minute length where it feels boring or staying over it’s intended welcome. If I had one criticism it would be perhaps there is almost too much of the “real world” and it would have been nice to have one or two more scenes in the “U” virtual world.
This film also makes a strong statement about the social media community. Throughout the picture it is often displayed as a very hateful or toxic environment much like our own social media. It does grow and maybe give you hope for tomorrow by the final credits but it’s an interesting commentary as a side theme for the overall movie.
This movie is filmed in a 2.39:1 aspect widescreen format. The disc supports HDR and Dolby Vision. In a simple word, breathtaking. If someone wanted a reference quality disc for what animation should look like in 4k (sorry Warner DC), this is certainly it. Breaking down the real world scenes where mbps is averaging around 45-50, we see some very elaborate backgrounds and we get our first glimpse at Hosoda’s brilliance as he uses the inspiration of the Kochi Prefecture. Hosoda takes care here to include many facets of the location such as Niyodo River, Aso Chinkabashi Bridge, and the JR Ino station and it is animated beautifully.
However, where the disc takes a turn to the unbelievable is the World of “U” where mbps is bumped all the way up from high 70’s to even breaking 90’s at many points during these important scenes. As good as the “real world” scenes are, the amount of detail in the “U” is staggering and this is where the disc really shines. We already know it’s an architectural masterpiece but pause a few scenes in the “U” and just stare at it for a hard minute and get lost in every shape and crevice of the landscape. Or for one of the concerts where you see so many participants cheering on Belle’s every word, the screen it littered with detail. Selfishly, I just wanted the whole movie to be in the “U” just so I could see the detail.
Note: It is worth noting after confirmed from other sites, the UHD is indeed a BD-100 disc which explains the high bitrates in the World of “U”.
The sound to this film is presented in Japanese and English Dolby ATMOS with English (original), English SDH and Spanish subtitles. There is also a 5.1 English DVS track as well. The 7.1 surround setup is extremely aggressive and will use your surround speakers wonderfully. Dialog is clear with zero hiccups and yes most people will watch this in Japanese (as I did the first time around) but there are no problems with the English track either.
As with the video, the audio gets pumped up to ten fold once within the confines of “U”. We all know that many of the Belle scenes are basically a concert but this disc’s audio track will put you there. You might even find yourself shouting Belle, Belle, Belle in rhythm to the noise from the disc’s audience. The beautiful music of the film also fills the speakers quite nicely, I’m not even sure if a few hundred speakers on the back of a whale could make a more fulfilling sound. Perhaps the only slight criticism would be that the disparity between the “real world” and the “U” is too much at times.
Disc 2(or first Blu-Ray if you would like)
The Making of Belle 44:05: A rather long featurette that really goes into all facets of the movie including how the movie came together, depicting the real world, coming up with the World of “U”, Storyboards & Animation and more. They also spend time with the female and male cast as well as exploring the music of the movie.
A Conversation with Director Mamoru Hosoda 29:13: A candid conversation with Mr. Hosoda as he dives into many topics including his inspiration for this film and how he planned (or rather he didn’t do much planning) the activities. He also goes over the use of the Internet in the film as well as challenges in the creative process. The director also talks about the state of the animation industry and finishes up with the standing ovation he received at Cannes.
The Music of Belle 15:32: We spend time with Taisei Iwasaki (composer), Ludvig Forssell (composer), and Taka Chiyo (music supervisor). They talk about the score of the movie and how it came about. The most interesting part probably has to do with how they worked the la-la-la lyrics of one song in particular with cell phone recordings around the world in wake of COVID.
Finding the Voice of Belle 11:49: This deals with the English dub part of the film and what it took to find Kylie McNeill who voices the English speaking version of Belle.
Scene Breakdown: The Train Station 10:37: In probably my favorite featurette of the extras, Hosoda sits down with a tablet and works through the scene to explain it to the audience. He stops, pauses, fast forwards and rewinds as needed as he explains the scene.
Scene Breakdown: The Ballroom 12:06: Just like the one prior, but this scene is the one where Belle starts singing in the Ballroom which leads to Belle and Dragon Dancing. Hosoda also goes into detail with the similarities with Beauty & The Beast (the older film as well as the Disney classic).
Hosoda @ Animation is Film Festival 18:05: In October 22nd-24th, 2021 Hosoda joins the Animation is Film Festival which is held at the TCL Chinese 6 Theatres in Hollywood, California. Naturally, Hosoda had a translator on hand who might indeed have one of the hardest translator jobs known to mankind. Mostly because Hosoda is rather long-winded and said roughly a couple of paragraphs worth and then the translation had to recite back verbatim. What’s funny is that the Leonard Maltin (this guy is still alive? Who knew…) questions must have occurred later in the festival because the translator is now sitting down and writing notes in order to repeat back everything that Hosoda is saying.
Hosoda Draws Belle 8:50: Just what it sounds like, Hosoda (who is actually quite an accomplished artist) is drawing Belle and discussing the process of designing that character.
Design Gallery 13:57: One hundred and sixty five pictures running the gambit of Character design, concept art, “U” concept art, backgrounds – Real World (I seriously want some of these for my desktop) and backgrounds – “U”.
Kylie McNeill Performs “Gales of Song” 2:37: The talented piano player and singer does a take of “Gales of Song” for our viewing and listening pleasure.
Trailers 7:05: There are six different trailers here. We have the English Dub, a couple of International Trailers and a trio of International Teasers. The most balanced trailer here is actually the English dub where as the other spots all tend to be either musical (or score perhaps) or pure conversation type.
Behind the Japanese Dub 41:31: This starts out in April 2021 with a very intimate look at the dialogue recording. The Director, Hosoda puts the voice cast through their paces. We also get to to enjoy the rehearsing of the music. The intensity of the Dragon is something truly to behold.
Promo Events with Hosoda and Cast 40:27: We have several different events here including the July 6th, 2021 Completion Press Conference where the Dragon voice was revealed for the very first time. We also have the July 16th, 2021 – Premiere Day Stage Greetings. This was a lot more formal. Finally we have an offering from September 11th, 2021 where they thanked everyone who made the film a hit. It had grossed 5.97 billion yen (or about 43 million in American dollars) in a mere 57 days.
Special Dialogues with Cast 24:17: This has a couple of different sessions. The first deals with the voices behind Belle and the Dragon while the second deals with Belle and and Hiro’s talent behind the voices. They heap lots of praise on each other while talking about their favorite scenes and getting into the part.
Interview with Takeru Satoh 6:02: As previously mentioned, Takeru is the voice of the Dragon. He talks about the film’s appeal as well as his character. He also gives impressions of the other characters such as Belle and the director.
Eric Wong Interview 26:33: Eric Wong is the British architect who design the virtual reality world of “U”. With Hosoda’s help we find out how they met and despite more challenges from COVID, were able to work through text messages and email transmission. We learn some of how the music worked with that world and how he designed almost all of the facets of that world. Fun fact, Eric did not design the doors to that world. Hosoda was a little too picky for that one and did it himself.
Physical Packaging (aka the Collector’s Edition)
I have added some pictures to the proceeding here of the packaging (excuse my lack of picture taking skills).
In the first picture, there is the wonderful box that everything fits into along with the back cover which actually fits nicely into the box itself (which doesn’t always happen by the way).
In the second picture, a showing of the wraparound style case with the three discs. There is also the 60 page book which all sorts of information and photos about the movie. A sticker at the right is also included if you would decorate your favorite notebook.
In the third picture, we have the art cards, 6 of them with a holder to house them.
In the last picture is the full color poster, perfect for framing.
This “Beauty and the Beast” tale was nominated for five Annie Awards (which for those who do not know celebrates animated excellence), and was runner up at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for Best Animated Film. It did win a couple of awards, first for Outstanding Achievement in Music at the Japan Academy Film Prize as well as the Excellence Award – Animated Theatrical Film Category at the VFX Japan Awards. It was also the #3 highest grossing film in Japan for the year of 2021. It really is a fantastic movie and unfortunately a film that could have seen even bigger box office receipts if it wasn’t released during COVID.
The collector’s edition 4k box is truly special with a fantastic packaging including a 4k Dolby Vision HDR disc that borders on reference material with impressive video and audio that is worthy of the format. The extras expand over two discs and run well over four hours in length. This is easily the best box set I will review all year (and probably the best box set I’ll acquire this year, even better than some of the ones I’ve gotten recently from Arrow or Criterion). I give this my highest recommendation and really hope that more people (not just those who love Anime) find this film and appreciate it as much as I did. Enjoy.