“Belle” by Mamoru Hosoda: learning to become yourself
Grief, parent-child relationships and learning to become the truest version of yourself are not entirely new themes for Oscar-nominated Japanese director and animator Mamoru Hosoda. From Wolf children and Mirai at The boy and the beast and The girl who crossed time, the journey of human transformation is a common theme in nearly all of the director’s stories.
Hosoda’s latest movie, Beautiful (Ryu to Sobakasu no Hime) – literally, “The Dragon and Freckled Princess” – premiering today, January 14, in North American theaters, is no exception.
“I’m always fascinated by how people can change or how people can transform and if there’s an old version of a person or maybe a new version of that same person, what it takes to take them through this transformation,” says Hosoda. “It can be many different things – maybe they meet a very important person or figure in their life, or a major event causes or triggers this change.”
He adds: “Adults are a bit resistant to change, whereas children react to change in a much more honest and pure way. By featuring them in movies, I think we can learn a lot from them and maybe do a lot to become better people and a better society.
Produced by Hosoda’s animation company, Studio Chizu, Beautiful separates itself from the director’s previous works by emphasizing virtual connections, as real as those made in person, as a vehicle for dramatic and personal change.
The film centers on Suzu, a 17-year-old high school girl, living in a rural village in Kōchi Prefecture with her father. After her mother died in a traumatic accident, Suzu gave up her love of singing, becoming a shadow of her former self ever since. On the recommendation of a friend, Suzu joins the virtual world of “U” and creates an avatar named “Belle” through which she finds the courage within herself to start singing again. As Belle becomes a hit sensation in “U”, Suzu encounters a mysterious avatar, “The Dragon”, and seeks to learn more about her real world, her past, and what fostered her destructive nature.
Watch the opening scene and other new footage from the film below:
Released in Japan last July, Beautiful quickly became the third highest-grossing Japanese film of 2021. The story continues to address child neglect, abuse, overcoming self-destructive behaviors, and learning how to bring your true self forward despite heartache.
“My parents are already passed away, and this idea of separation and sadness, these feelings, we have to deal with them somehow in order to move on,” says Hosoda. “In the context of Beautiful, where there are many types of families, if there’s anything I can say that might speak to some of them in terms of how to deal with certain elements of grief, then go beyond- beyond that, so that’s what I would try to express in my films.
But Hosoda also had a bigger mission with Beautiful, in addition to producing an incredibly moving story with a universal message. The director also wanted BeautifulThe influence of extends not only to touch the hearts of viewers, but also to shine a light on creators whose work has been hidden in the shadows of big corporations, like Disney animator Jin Kim, known for his character design work on movies like big hero 6, Tangled and Frozen.
“A lot of times in other interviews, people would ask me, ‘Did you work with Jin Kim because you wanted that Disney touch?'” Hosoda recalled. “I didn’t want the Disney touch. I wanted Jin Kim’s touch. I just think his art and style is so beautiful and the range of expression he’s able to put to paper is truly unique. He really makes the characters seem alive when he illustrates them.
Hosoda continues, “I don’t know if it’s repression, but I think capitalism hides a lot of talent that exists and disguises it as something else. I hope that through this film we may be able to put more people on this global visibility platform.
It’s a goal that fully corresponds to the message of Beautiful – using visual entertainment to give people a space to show off their talents and true selves. And that opportunity is one that Hosoda has given to both well-established and lesser-known talents in his production.
“I wouldn’t have believed this opportunity would have landed in my lap,” says Eric Wong, a London-based architect hired as a Beautifulproduction designer and concept artist. “I grew up watching director Hosoda’s anime, and I just got an email one day, towards the end of 2019, about being part of that movie. It actually went to my mail junk, and it happened, I checked that email one day and I was like, “No way. I rechecked it several times. Who would have thought that someone like me in their room at London would get an email with this amazing opportunity?I really wouldn’t have.
After finding Wong’s work online – his impossibly large, detailed, abstract, colorful and heavily populated alternative digital versions of UK cities – Hosoda pursued him to create the alternative virtual reality world of “U”.
“He told me he appreciated the spirit of the unknown in my work,” Wong explains. “In the script for the movie, he was talking about this sea of skyscrapers and geometric shapes, so I really took that and used that verbiage as visual springboards to push the design that you see now. I also added a lot of flora and fauna to add life to what at times looked like a rather chilly metropolis.
Hosoda adds, “In terms of this massive internet world, I wanted to make sure that this endless possibility or spectrum was captured in the visual representation of U and all of the avatars within it. I wanted to express it as a massive, giant city because a lot of younger generations are moving to cities like Osaka and Tokyo, which is starting this movement towards a more globalized world.
And while real-world character interactions take place in Japan, the concept of a “globalized world” is one that Wong used as inspiration for “U,” creating a space that is both location-independent of the real world and universally inviting to people of all cultures and countries.
“A lot of the virtual world is meant to be global, so I didn’t want it to be culturally tied to one specific area, because it’s a place for everyone that allows billions of avatars to come together in a central gathering hub,” says Wang. As it should be, the architect was working remotely at the same time with Beautifulown Internet hub of creative collaborators.
“Before this film, I hadn’t realized that animation studios in Japan were collaborating outside of Japan,” Wong explains. “I just remember thinking that, as surreal as that is, how fitting it was also for this movie about connections to use collaborations across those connections. It corresponded to the spirit of the film.
He continues: “All the other collaborators are indisputably renowned. So, I just felt like a small fry working in his room, doing my best. Each new task was a new challenge. But there were a lot of transferable skills from my experience with architecture, especially with the ‘U’ world being so rooted in geometric shapes. Composition, elevation of buildings and sections, all of those things were surprisingly very transferable skills and I found I was just doing what I knew. I hope this film has given more people in the world of architecture the belief that there is a wide scope for collaboration and that the capacity of design is endless.
Wong also believes that the collaborative efforts behind Beautiful are just as responsible for the film’s success as they are for its message of connectedness.
“I think the film’s success really comes from the opportunities that director Hosoda has created for artists and storytellers around the world, and now even more viewers will have the chance to be a part of that,” he says. “I remember being in my room watching the second trailer, where Suzu is spinning in the middle, and we see this vast city exterior and I literally started crying. craziest of all time and I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity.
Hosoda adds that the level of disconnection and isolation people are feeling due to the pandemic might actually improve the emotional response they have to this film which is all about filling in the gaps.
“Sometimes people come up to me and say, ‘It’s a shame more people could have seen it if it hadn’t been for COVID,'” Hosoda recalled. “And that may be the case. But maybe not. I think there are a lot of people who have felt very repressed in some way and go to the cinema, they try to break free from that, which is related to the theme of the film itself . And people, one step at a time, are reclaiming this release from isolation. So in that context, hopefully I was able to create a film and release it at a time when it could speak to a lot of people.
Victoria Davis is a full-time freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She reported many stories ranging from activist news to entertainment. To learn more about his work, visit victoriadavisdepiction.com.