The Girl With The Dragon In U
GABRIELLE-SUZANNE BARBOT DE Villeneuve’s 18th-century fable Beauty And The Beast gets an update for the social media age in Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle. The story follows Suzu, a shy teenager who finds freedom and confidence in a virtual reality world called U, where her avatar Belle encounters a brooding, tormented loner named the Dragon.
Transformation has been a recurring theme in Hosoda’s work, from the shapeshifting lycanthropes of Wolf Children to the online avatars of Summer Wars. Similarly, his stories regularly feature teenagers, from The Girl Who Leaped Through Time to The Boy And The Beast – but then what is adolescence if not a process of transformation? “I’m interested in how people change, whether it’s their feelings that are changing or their way of thinking,” says Hosoda. “I’m interested in what makes people change, because we can try and change ourselves and it can be very hard unless we have a very powerful experience to actually change us. But children change all the time.
Every time they have a new experience, they change, they grow. They’re very dynamic.”
In the world of U, the insecure Suzu becomes a viral sensation via her alter ego. The design for Belle is the work of Jin Kim, a Disney veteran whose credits include Frozen, Wreck-it Ralph and Tangled. But no one is likely to mistake Belle for a Disney Princess. “We didn’t even really talk about what she’d look like,” says Hosoda. “We talked a lot about her character and about her spirit; we talked about what kind of person she is, and this
hidden heart that she has, and then Jin just used what we talked about to create the character of Belle. He didn’t set out to draw a beautiful character. I think doing it this way round has helped to give her humanity, because anime is drawing and anyone can draw a beautiful person, but without thinking about the character it’s just the surface, it’s just a puppet – there’s no spirit, no soul.”
Hosoda has been a vocal critic of the way that young women are presented in Japanese media, aiming a sharp jibe at Studio Ghibli for their idealised heroines. When Suzu becomes a virtual popstar, the film’s showpiece musical numbers avoid the clichés of Japan’s idol culture, with its somewhat unhealthy fixation on teenage girls. In Belle, there are no cutesy or sexy dance numbers to accompany Suzu’s singing. Instead, the character is introduced riding on the back of a whale.
“With idol culture, I feel like it can be sexually exploitative because it ignores the humanity of those people, and I question whether that’s okay in human relationships,” says the director. “We have this tendency to have a superficial view of women and I’ve never wanted to do that in my work.
“What’s more important to me, irrespective of whether it’s a male or a female character, is the fact that they’re human and what sort of person they should be – what sort of person that people can look up to. If I did have Belle dancing on the back of a whale, it might have looked more similar to traditional Japanese anime, idol-style characters. Not that there’s anything wrong with dancing, but I wanted to respect the character and the humanity of Belle as a person.”
GOTTA WEAR SHADES
The death of her mother looms large in Suzu’s life, and the experience of becoming a parent himself has clearly shaped Hosoda’s films, something articulated in the growing pains of Wolf Children or Mirai, which concerns a child’s jealousy at the arrival of a new sibling. Belle addresses the negative possibilities of social media in terms of bullying, privacy and anonymity, yet Hosoda seems optimistic about what the future holds for his children in an online world.
“The fact that fake news, Facebook etc twist reality and are scary, can be bad for young people and have a negative impact… all of this is the reason why so many films show the internet as a negative and dystopian place, because they are afraid of change,” he says.
“I don’t think we need to be afraid of change. I want young people to change the world – they are the ones with the energy and dynamism to do that. They have the new values that are going to be required in the new world and I want to support them.” DW
Belle is coming to cinemas in early 2022.
We have this tendency to have a superficial view of women and I’ve never wanted to do that in my work