The Oscar-nominated ‘Mirai’ director discusses his new film, about a shy young high school girl who comes of age as she takes a fantastical journey through the virtual world of ‘U,’ releasing today in North American theaters.
Grief, parent and child relationships, and learning to become the truest version of oneself are not altogether new themes for Oscar-nominated Japanese director and animator Mamoru Hosoda. From Wolf Children and Mirai to The Boy and the Beast and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the journey of human transformation is a theme common to almost all the director’s stories.
Hosoda’s latest film, Belle (Ryū 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 about how people are able to change or how people are able to transform and, if there's an old version of a person or perhaps a new version of that same person, what it takes to bring them through that transformation,” says Hosoda. “It could be many different things – perhaps they meet some very important person or figure in their life, or there's a major event that causes or triggers this change.”
He adds, “Adults are a bit resistant to change, whereas kids react to changes in a much more honest and pure way. By featuring them in movies, I think there's a lot that we can learn from them and a lot that, perhaps, we can do to become better people and better society.”
Produced by Hosoda’s animation company, Studio Chizu, Belle separates itself from the director’s previous works with its focus on virtual connections, as real as those made in person, as a conduit for dramatic, personal change.
The film centers on Suzu, a 17-year-old high school student, living in a rural village of Kōchi Prefecture with her father. After her mother passed away in a traumatic accident, Suzu gave up her love of singing, becoming a shadow of herself ever since. Upon a friend’s recommendation, Suzu joins the virtual world of “U” and creates an avatar named “Belle” through which she finds it in herself to begin singing again. While Belle becomes a hit sensation in “U,” Suzu comes across a mysterious avatar, "The Dragon,” and seeks to learn more about the real-world him, his past, and what fostered his destructive nature.
Watch the opening scene and other new footage from the film below:
Released in Japan this past July, Belle quickly became the third highest-grossing Japanese film of 2021. The story goes on to address child neglect, abuse, overcoming self-destructive behaviors, and learning how to put your true self forward despite heartache.
“My parents have already passed away, and this idea of separation and sadness, these feelings, we need to come face to face with them in some way shape or form in order to move forward,” says Hosoda. “In the context of Belle, where there are many different kinds of families, if there's something that I can say that perhaps might speak to some of them in terms of how to face certain elements of grief, and then move beyond that, then that would be what I would try to express in my movies.”
But Hosoda also had a bigger mission with Belle, outside of producing an incredibly emotional story with a universal message. The director also wanted Belle’s influence to expand not only to touch the hearts of viewers, but also spotlight creators whose work has been hidden in the shadows of large companies, such as Disney animator Jin Kim, who’s known for his character design work on films like Big Hero 6, Tangled and Frozen.
“Oftentimes, in other interviews, people asked me, ‘Did you work with Jin Kim because you wanted that Disney touch?’” recalls Hosoda. “I didn't want the Disney touch. I wanted Jin Kim's touch. I simply think that his art and his style is so beautiful and the range of expression that he is able to put onto paper is really unique. He really makes the characters feel like they're alive when he illustrates them.”
Hosoda continues, “I don’t know if it’s suppression, but I think capitalism is hiding a lot of talent that is out there and disguising it as something else. I hope that, through this movie, we can perhaps put more people onto that global platform of visibility.”
It’s a goal that is very much in line with the message of Belle -- using visual entertainment to give people a space to showcase their talents and true selves. And this opportunity is one Hosoda provided to both well-established and those lesser-known talent on his production.
“I would not have believed this opportunity would have landed in my lap,” says Eric Wong, a London-based architect hired on as Belle’s production 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 this film. It actually went to my junk email, and it just so happened, I checked that email one day and was like, “No way.” I double-checked it a few times. Who would have thought someone like me in their bedroom in London would receive an email with this amazing opportunity? I really wouldn’t have.”
After finding Wong’s work online – his incredibly vast, detailed, abstract, colorful, and highly populated alternate digital versions of cities in the United Kingdom - Hosoda pursued him to create the alternate virtual reality world of “U.”
“He told me that he enjoyed the spirit of the unfamiliar in my work,” says Wong. “In the film’s script, it talked about this sea of geometric skyscrapers and shapes, so I really took that and used that verbiage as visual springboards to push the design you see now. I also added a lot of flora and fauna to add life to what felt like, occasionally, a quite cold 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 depiction of U and all the avatars within it. I wanted to express it as a massive, giant city because a lot of the younger generations are moving to cities like Osaka and Tokyo, which is beginning this movement towards a more globalized world.”
And while the characters’ real-world interactions take place in Japan, the concept of a “globalized world” was one that Wong used as inspiration for “U,” creating a space both unattached to real-world places as well as universally inviting to people from all cultures and countries.
“A lot the virtual world is meant to be global, so I didn't want it to be culturally attached to one specific area, because it's a place for everyone that allows billions of avatars to come together in a central gathering hub,” explains Wong. Fittingly enough, the architect was, at the same time, working remotely with Belle’s own internet hub of creative collaborators.
“Before this film, I didn't realize that animation studios in Japan collaborated outside of Japan,” says Wong. “I remember just thinking that, as surreal as this was, how fitting it was as well for this film about connections to use collaborations through those connections. It felt right for the spirit of the film.”
He continues, “All the other collaborators are undoubtedly renowned. So, I just felt like a small fry working in his bedroom, trying his hardest. Every new task was a new challenge. But there were a lot of transferable skills from my experience with architecture, especially with the world of ‘U’ being so rooted in geometric shapes. The composition, elevation of the buildings and sections, all of these things were surprisingly very transferable skills and I found I was just doing what I knew. Hopefully, this film has given more people in the world of architecture the belief that there’s a big scope to collaborate and that the capacity of design is infinite.”
Wong also believes the collaborative efforts behind Belle are just as responsible for the film’s success as its message of connectivity.
“I think the success of the film really comes from the opportunities director Hosoda has created for artists and storytellers everywhere, and now even more viewers will get a chance to be a part of it,” he says. “I remember being in my room watching the second trailer, where Suzu is spinning in the middle, and we see this vast, external of the city and I literally started crying. It was the craziest moment ever and I’m incredibly thankful for this opportunity.”
Hosoda adds that the level of disconnect, and isolation people feel due to the pandemic might actually enhance the emotional response they have to this film that’s entirely about bridging gaps.
“Sometimes people come up to me and say, ‘It's a shame more people could have seen it if it wasn't for COVID,’” recalls Hosoda. “And maybe that is the case. But maybe not. I think there's a lot of people who felt very suppressed in some kind of way and going to the movie theater, there's some level of trying to gain freedom from that, which relates to the theme of the movie itself. And people are, one step at a time, reclaiming that freedom from isolation. So, within that context, I hope that I was able to create a film and release it in a time that it could speak to a lot of people.”