Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 1 minute, Director – Mamoru Hosoda
Teenager Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) enters the virtual reality world of U, where she quickly becomes a world famous singer, however her interest lies in a dark and destructive figure known as The Dragon (Takeru Satoh).
“You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U” – it’s this core tagline which acts as a core turning point for quiet, anxious teenager Suzu (Kaho Nakamura). She dons the technology to transport her body to that of a virtual reality figure designed after herself and her personality and is plunged into U; a world of towering buildings and thousands of floating figures, apparently a population of two billion overall. While initially unsure of what to do in this detailed, seemingly endless, landscape she eventually does the thing which comes most naturally to her, sing. It’s something she hasn’t done for years, having not done so since her mother passed away a number of years ago, ever since her relationship with her father (Kōji Yakusho) has been distant, the same going for those she has, or rather doesn’t have, at school – aside from her tech-minded best friend Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta).
While initially her singing appears to be a disturbance to other players in the VR realm Suzu becomes an overnight sensation, her avatar Bell gaining millions of followers within a matter of hours. Gradually the film, the latest from writer-director Mamoru Hosoda, begins to look at the various effects of Bell’s impact on both the online sphere, and Suzu’s life in reality. Brief moments look at the masses of comments that pour in showing potential overload and Suzu’s increased stresses in life. However, none of that takes priority over her and Hiroka’s quest into discovering who the mysterious player known as The Dragon (Takeru Satoh) is. A dark, towering figure who disrupts the peace and harmony within U. The search is conducted both worlds and takes a different form within each. While based in reality there’s a more direct line of research and potential ‘suspects’, however when actually facing the labelled beast herself there’s something of an acknowledged Beauty And The Beast narrative unfolding.
Amongst all of this there are still elements of Suzu’s personal life to be glimpsed. The way she interacts with classmates, leading to one or two particularly humorous instances, also comes to the fore at certain points. There aren’t exactly beats and narrative strands fighting for prominence throughout the film. It feels more the case that as one thing comes forward everything else is almost put on pause, taking turns to develop, rarely all happening at the same time. With the story/ stories unfolding in this way the effect is that of a slightly lengthier run-time than perhaps the film should have. While clocking in at only just over two hours the third act begins to feel as if it tails off from the film and you begin to feel a sense of distance from the film as a whole. Moments that should have more impact don’t fully click after the various patches and changes over the developing course of the piece.
While the animation is still wonderful and truly comes to life on the big screen, the mixture of traditional anime and CG for the world of U is excellently done and adds to the vibrant colour of the worlds at play, especially when Suzu/ Bell is performing (the songs throughout are pretty great), it’s not quite enough to distract from the nearly sprawling narrative. The beauty and the beast elements feel the most pushed back and certainly feel rushed when it finally comes to them, as if a minor detail there to progress things elsewhere/ It’s inclusion causes the second half overall to feel somewhat drawn out, despite the interesting unfolding of events and details in the real world.
There’s certainly a cleverness to the film as a whole and the way it goes about certain elements and strands, both in terms of representing the online, virtual reality world and also some well-handled points within Suzu’s reality, and some of the people around her. However. as it goes on the feeling that the film is slipping into convention increases and it becomes rather familiar as it travels along its various paths. It’s a shame for something which starts out as something so unique and with plenty of potential. What we get is something visually brilliant, and with plenty of good music too, but requiring a stronger narrative structure to properly pull it through to the end of the piece and the viewer along with it.
While strong in terms of visuals and music Belle begins to slip into convention with its stop-start set of narrative strands. It’s certainly interesting and you can feel the creativity, the story could just do with some tightening up.