There’s something wholly intimidating about a true virtual reality. Not that Oculus, microwaveable virtual reality. The real thing, as seen in The Matrix or Ready Player One, and begs the question of what happens to our society, as well as the individual, if such a thing ever becomes possible. The implications of a truly digital world have been depicted in fiction for decades, including anime. In Belle, there arises a familiar premise in the medium – a timid, precocious teenager uses a gaming engine to become a confident, majestic pop star. However, Belle proves to be more than just what’s on the surface.
The name of the virtual world in question is “U,” a digital landscape with varied locations, but we mostly see it set in a crowded downtown area that seems a bit indistinguishable in its architecture and societal functions. But what “U” lacks in detail, it more than makes up for in colorful, visual splendor. “AS” refers to the avatar of the individual – the system copies your biometric code so that an individual can only assume ONE identity. Sorry, no multiple account trickery here, you pick an identity and you stick to it.
When Belle, a mysterious pop singer, first arrives on the scene it is the beauty of both her appearance and voice that enthralls the users of U. It should be noted that ‘Belle, in French, literally translates to “beautiful.” Belle becomes so popular that she market-corrects the previous flavor of the month singer, much to that individual’s chagrin. Soon, a chatter erupts about Belle’s real-life identity – and they’d all be surprised to know it is a shy, emotionally distraught young Japanese high schooler named Suzo Naito. We learn Suzo is a talented artist, who grew up songwriting and singing. But personal tragedy, one of which confused Suzo as much as traumatized her, causes her to lose her ability to sing. Her confusion about why that event transpired has her feeling unloved, explaining the loss of her singing voice. Now, it is only in U where she seems to have that talent.
But Belle’s idyllic game life is upended by a disruptor that has been running rampant in U for months. This is when the movie takes a turn into a modified adaptation of one of the world’s most famous works of fiction (and which the title of this movie directly alludes to). Suzo and her bestie Hiroka become intrigued by the unknown identity of this rogue gamer. And their journey into who he is and exactly why he’s been terrorizing U will lead to self-discovery, as well as why we often try to lose ourselves in an alternate identity.
Belle has a lot on it’s mind about personal choice, freedom, and how that smacks against the realities of engaging in society. It would seem that virtual reality would finally grant us all freedom, the ability to be who we want and do whatever we want. For what’s the collateral damage if it’s a digital world? But director Mamoru Hosada reminds us that there will always be those who attempt to control the masses, regardless of where humans decide to set up shop. You can’t live in a house built by someone else, and not expect to have to follow their rules. In U, there exists a task force designed to “keep the peace.” But we soon learn this force is not equipped to get to the root of the problem – they’re only here to make the surface-level problem go away as to not stain U’s pristine image. Suzo calls this out, remarking to one character that he’s only interested in control, he doesn’t actually care about people. And rest assured, virtual reality will not signal the end of government wrong-doing, it will only help mask it behind digital walls of bliss.
When the 2nd act plot turn happens, many viewers may feel like they’re about to view a copy/paste facsimile that is all too familiar. To be fair, Belle borrows a lot of beats from a story many have already read or seen. But this is not where the story is ultimately leading. Instead, the film is at it’s best when it forges out it’s own identity, interrogating the complex emotions of its lead characters. It all leads to a third emotional act, where secrets are revealed, accompanied by a heartwarming performance by Belle, whose lovely voice wins over fans and adversaries alike.
Now if you watch a lot of anime, you’ve become accustomed to the Naruto-ization of characterization – in which characters are often accompanied by some type of tragic backstory in order to draw empathy from the audience. This can become tiresome in abundance, as if you’re watching misery porn with characters seemingly trying to one-up each other on who can be the biggest sad sack. But Hosada is conservative with this trope, limiting it to the right number of characters and displaying it at the right time.
It also helps that our cast of characters expands to people who don’t have as many emotional stakes on the line, from a seemingly perfect high school Princess, a goofball jock who provides much of the film’s comic relief, and a male crush who proves to be mature and there for Suzo more often than she initially realizes. It’s that sense of togetherness that brings the story whole. The film argues that trauma can not be helped by insincere pleasantries, but requires work, time, and presence. While we can lose ourselves in the majesty of a video game, forgetting our past, what really heals our wounds is the warm embrace of someone who cares.