GKIDS and Studios Chizu's latest animated film Belle is officially in theaters stateside, and it's a retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast tale that had us instantly hooked with its modern messages and themes about living a double life and the power of the internet.
Helmed by famed director Mamoru Hosoda — who has brought anime fans classics like Digimon Adventure, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Wolf Children, and the Oscar-nominated Mirai over his years-long career — Belle tells the story of a shy, music-loving high schooler named Suzu. Still grieving the loss of her mother at a young age and with only a few friends and not that much going on in her normal, everyday life in rural Japan, she decides to create an account on the popular virtual world platform called "U," and almost instantly becomes one of its most popular personalities, becoming a veritable virtual pop star in no time at all. But when a mysterious player called "The Dragon" shows up and creates chaos (or rather, a cry for help), Suzu's secret identity as the virtual world's ultimate fave is threatened, and it's up to her to get The Dragon the help he needs.
Out got the chance to speak to Hosoda about crafting the film, his love for coming-of-age stories, how he hopes his films help young people, and more!
Out: Can you talk about the early days and the origins of the film? How did the story come about and what inspired you to create this story and create this world?
Mamoru Hosoda: I've been making internet-themed films for 20 years, and I thought about how can I put a different angle on the same subject matter? And I came up with the idea of depicting the story of Beauty and the Beast in the world of the internet.
The reason is that the Beast has two sides to his personality. He's got a violent side and then he also has a gentle side and I see the same with the internet. You have a real you and you on the internet, those are two different sides of yourself. I thought the contrast between the two would echo very well together and that's how this idea came about.
The main character, Suzu, deals with a lot of hate comments when she's in the world of U as Belle. And I'm sure you experienced that, too, especially as a filmmaker. How do you navigate and deal with online hate and was that a major part of the inspiration of that part of the story?
Since the early stages of the internet, I've always looked at it as a place where people vent and say negative things, getting those things out of their system. I think all filmmakers probably get some hate comments and stuff like that, so I really don't take those too seriously or personally.
What I'm more concerned about is that for young generations on the internet nowadays. Whatever you say, people would start dissing it, start criticizing everything you say and do and that makes it hard for them to say their own opinions, share their ideas, and stuff like that. There are a lot of people out there that are waiting to jump onto that opportunity and try to drag you down. I really want those young generations to not be discouraged by those negative comments and be strong and take advantage of the internet. I hope Belle serves as a support for those young generations. I want to encourage them to take the internet in a positive light.
A lot of your films also center youth. Some of my favorites are Digimon Adventures, Summer Wars, Wolf Children. What is it about youth and coming-of-age that you like most, especially since a lot of your films take place in this specific timeframe of someone's life?
I think the big reason is that when I started my animation career at Toei Animation, their target audience was kids. It was mainly for kids. But working there, I learned how to portray how kids grow up and how they become stronger and mature. That's my base.
Animation tends to be considered something that's only for kids, but I believe it has a lot bigger potential for it. I have to say deep down, I really want to encourage and support the young generation, and that's why I tend to gear towards younger characters for my protagonists. At the same time, I am always trying to challenge, push the borders for that potential of animation and what it can do. Those two came together in this film.
Before Belle, your latest film, Mirai, made a huge splash and was a fan-favorite in 2018. Was the pressure to follow that up really intense for this film, especially since Mirai was nominated for an Oscar?
It was definitely an honor that Mirai got nominated for the Oscar and it definitely helped raise awareness of my works and the studio. Like I said, I'm always pushing the envelope that what animation can do. I believe anime can communicate or express more than what it's been doing. If it's only geared toward kids, there's definitely a limitation on what kind of subject matter you can deal with in your film, but I want to get out of that box and deal with a lot of social issues, like I did with this film. But like I said, deep down, I've always wanted to encourage young people and kids, that's there still. The mixture of the two, I hope the audience can actually pick up on it.
Belle is now playing in theaters.