I know what social media is now. It’s a pink-haired girl singing a pop song while riding through cyberspace on the back of a whale with hundreds of speakers mounted on its side, amid showers of confetti and flowers. That’s the arresting image greeting us in the opening sequence of Belle, which opens in a lot more local theaters this weekend than anime films typically do. If you’d like to know why I picked this Japanese stunner as the best film of 2021, you’ll never have a better chance than now.
Suzu Naito (voiced by Kaho Nakamura in the Japanese version and Kylie McNeill in the English-language one) is a 17-year-old social exile in rural Japan who logs into a new social network called U. She creates that pink-haired girl as her online alter ego and names her “Bell,” which is a trilingual play on words: Suzu means “bell” in Japanese, and other users take to calling her “Belle,” the French word meaning beautiful. Bell’s songs make her an overnight sensation — literally, Suzu falls asleep with one follower and wakes to find herself with more than 2 million. Her biggest performance, though, is sabotaged by the Beast (voiced by Takeru Satoh and Paul Castro Jr.), an online troll who manifests in U as a fanged creature somewhere between boar and wolf.
You may not know that Japanese pop music is already in the business of creating singers who exist only in code rather than flesh and blood. (Google “Hatsune Miku” to see what that looks like.) Most of Suzu’s friends don’t know that she’s Bell, and if the idea of an ordinary girl living a double life as a pop star gives you flashbacks to Hannah Montana, that’s very much intentional on the part of writer-director Mamoru Hosoda.
However, the film is less a commentary on J-pop and more about social media. The defining trauma of Suzu’s life — the death of her mother (voiced by Sumi Shimamoto and Julie Nathanson) saving a child from a flood, which stopped her from being able to sing in real life — is exacerbated by users who castigate the dead woman for abandoning her own kid to save someone else’s. When Bell’s songs start to chart in the U-verse, she becomes a target of online hate by fans of a star singer named Peggy Sue (voiced by ermhoi and Cristina Valenzuela). Suzu’s best friend Hiro (voiced by Rira Ikuta and Jessica DiCicco), who is in on Bell’s true identity, is delighted by all the rancor: “If you only get compliments, that means you only have die-hard fans. Minor-league stuff. Success is built on mixed reception.” Hiro, quite an unsettling character, then turns the internet lynch mob onto Peggy Sue while cackling from her chair. Meanwhile, a rumor sprouts up that Suzu is dating the boy she likes (voiced by Ryô Narita and Manny Jacinto), and her schoolmates unanimously agree she isn’t pretty enough for him.
Hiro also takes part in a global manhunt for the Beast’s true identity, which ensnares a surly tattooed artist and an American baseball star. If this movie steals from Hannah Montana, it lifts wholesale passages of Beauty and the Beast. The dance number “Lend Me Your Voice” has Belle and the Beast waltzing in an empty ballroom exactly like the one from the title song in the Disney movie. The Beast even has his own Gaston in a police enforcer (voiced by Toshiyuki Morikawa and Chace Crawford) who talks about justice but really covets control of the internet. Thankfully, the Beast is no handsome prince waiting to sweep the heroine away, though I’m not sure about the film’s premise that all internet trolls are really just bruised children who need to be saved. Regardless, Hosoda blends layers of reality and fantasy with great skill, crafting virtual worlds of dazzling beauty, inhabited by fantastic creations living in castles in the sky. His previous anime films have been steadily gaining in stature from the delightful Summer Wars to the affecting Mirai, and now Belle is his breakthrough into the top ranks of filmmakers, and not just anime filmmakers. This is a better movie about social media than The Social Network, and it’s a PG-rated musical for kids. It knows how we’re wired.
Voices by Kaho Nakamura, Kylie McNeill, Takeru Satoh, and Paul Castro Jr. Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda. Rated PG.