Even though I no longer watch Anime as frequently as I did ten years ago, I still try to check out new series here and there. In particular, anime movies seem to have a much higher average satisfaction level, especially those from big production houses or directors (Studio Ghibli, Makoto Shinkai, etc.)
Recently I decided to watch Belle, a movie produced in 2021 by Studio Chizu, directed by Mamoru Hosoda. While neither the studio nor the director’s name was familiar to me, when I checked I discovered Hosoda had produced a bunch of great movies, including The Girl Who Lept Through Time and Summer Wars. I learned of this before watching Belle, which gave me high expectations about the film.
Belle is set in a virtual world, not a particularly unique setting these days, especially considering that Summer Wars was also set partially in a virtual world. As with many of my reviews, I am not going to go that much into the story, but I’ll say that it is partially about a romance between a boy and a girl (also not a particularly unique element).
To start with the good, overall I did enjoy the movie, especially the last third. There were some important themes in the movie, like the importance of individuality and other stuff related to society. But on the other hand, I felt that there was very little in terms of truly creative or unique aspects to the movie.
I mentioned the virtual world part just a moment ago, but everything else from the music (one of the main songs sounded like a rip-off of a Utada Hikaru song), to the characters felt decidedly generic. One of the main characters looked oddly like a Frozen character, and after watching the movie I discovered one of the creators from Frozen was in fact involved in the production of Belle. I’m neither a fan nor a hater of Frozen, but when I watch a Japanese film I am not looking to see characters that look obviously Western for no good reason––though I’ll admit the appeal of Western culture in Japan gives some realism to this. Besides the connections to Summer Wars, some of the scenes reminded me strongly of Train Man (a great drama, by the way).
Even the graphics used in the virtual world weren’t particularly breathtaking or creatively designed. On that note, Summer Wars was actually made back in 2009 and I was far more impressed with the CG in that movie, and even the story was much better than in Belle. (I should also mention I have been heavily into CG since I was a kid, even dabbling in 3D production with tools like Blender, and more recently, Unity.)
Overall I just felt like the story of Belle was mostly about going through the motions, and events seemed to take place with odd timing. For example, one part in the first half when someone begins singing all of a sudden just felt strange, almost like it was a musical. In fact, when I checked after watching the movie I learned that the director had supposedly originally wanted to create a musical. I don’t have any issue with musicals, but it lacked enough in-your-face songs to be considered a musical. Even though Belle was around two hours, it still felt like there were some key elements missing story-wise.
Finally, Belle clearly has a large degree of influence from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which seems like another attempt to get more Western viewers. Coupled with the similarity to Frozen, this was a big disappointment.
I drafted the review up to this point, but I was not comfortable with posting something so negative. However, in the following weeks I had an opportunity to listen to a few parts of the soundtrack apart from the movie. Without the distractions and annoyances from the movie, I was quite impressed and decided that the soundtrack deserved to be viewed as an excellent creative work, vaguely reminiscent of classic anime soundtracks (in good ways).
So while I still don’t have that much great to say about the movie, whether you watch it to experience the music, or listen to the soundtrack separately, I think it’s probably a good use of your time.