“Belle” Is An Incredibly Complex, Visually-Stunning Masterpiece

Clip courtesy of GKIDS – © 2021 STUDIO CHIZU

Warning: This Review Contains Major Spoilers

Belle is the strongest start to the year I have ever seen from anime, but it does suffer from that issues that I feel will result in it getting snubbed in the awards and recognition it very much deserves. If there has ever been an anime film that legitimately deserves to unseat Spirited Away as the only anime to ever win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, I think Belle should be the one to break the trend. Yes, I though Mamoru Hosoda’s previous film, Mirai, deserved to win its nomination too, but Belle is a film that I would dare to rank higher than Makoto Shinkai’s your name. There is one – and only one – anime film that I would continue to call my favorite, and perhaps it should come as no surprise then that it is another film from Hosoda, Summer Wars.

When I first saw the Japanese trailer for Belle (without subtitles), I immediately thought we were finally getting a sequel to Summer Wars. However, Belle was never advertised as being one, and now that I’ve seen it, it definitely is not. Not even remotely. However, I think that may be for the better. For many years now, I have said that Summer Wars should be required watching for anyone that works in Information Technology because I think it serves as a very valid warning about becoming too reliant on technology. It correctly predicted several aspects of The Internet of Things and its problems – ten years ago. That said, Belle is a complete 180, where Hosoda seems to promote the use of technology instead. That shift, along with many other parts of Belle left me with many questions I would like to ask Hosoda, especially knowing that many of his films touch on things he has encountered in his life. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I do want to know the backstory behind some of the scenes in Belle because of how concerning they are.

Belle is a coming of age film that tells the story of Suzu, a teenager living in Japan’s countryside struggling to fit in after loosing their mother at a very young age and whose name literally translates to “Bell”.

Major Spoilers Begin Below This Line

Suzu’s mother sacrifices herself to save a child stranded in the middle of a river, an action that causes Suzu to feel as if her mother abandoned her, feelings that are not helped any by the backlash her mother receives online for her actions. Her mother’s loss causes her to give up singing; Suzu’s mother introduced her to music, and the thought of continuing that love for music and the memories of her mother causes Suzu to suffer from panic attacks and distance herself from her classmates.

One day, Suzu receives an invite to the virtual world of U from Hiroka, the only classmate Suzu appears to talk to at first.


“You may not be able to start over in the real world, but you can start over in the world of U.”

In U, users have a virtual avatar known as an AS, which is automatically built based on the user’s biometric data and is generated from facial recognition and data received from earbuds worn by the user. My initial thought was that Belle could be considered a movie that would warn against this kind of technology, or as Mark Zuckerburg (aka founder of Facebook) likes to call it, the “metaverse”. Considering the plot of Summer Wars, it came as a great surprise to me that Belle is a film where technology is completely embraced with little to no reservations against doing so.

Because a user’s AS is built using their biometric data, their AS showcases their hidden strengths. In the case of Suzu, it means gaining the ability to sing again, something she immediately does and gains a small amount of attention for, with an equal mix of fans and critics.

The next day, her popularity on U explodes, in part due to Hiroka acting as her producer and heavily promoting the performance. This explosive success leads to users on U suggesting she change her name to Belle instead, the French word for “beautiful”. Suzu does so, and proceeds to hold a concert in U as Belle. However, the concert gets interrupted by another user known as “The Dragon” in the Japanese audio version or “The Beast” in the English audio version. I suspect the name change in English is because Belle is inspired by The Beauty and the Beast, something I had suspicions about when Suzu later goes to find The Dragon’s castle. On the other hand, Belle’s original title in Japanese literally translates to “The Dragon and The Freckled Princess.”

While the other users become angry at The Dragon for interrupting the concert and want his identity revealed through a power exclusively held by the user Justin, the apparent leader of U’s de-facto police force, Suzu instead wants to help The Dragon after seeing a series of bruises on his back. This leads Suzu to go looking for The Dragon’s hiding place, known as his castle, in U while Hiroka tries to find out the real-world identity of The Dragon.

As I mentioned previously, it was from this scene that I immediately had the feeling Belle might be a nod to Beauty and the Beast. Now, I’ve never actually seen the Disney movie (I suspect that comes as a rightful shock) nor have I read the original book, but I’m vaguely familiar with the art style and its premise. After researching the film’s production online, it turns out this is no accident. The background design for The Dragon’s castle are done by Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers) with design assistance for Belle coming from Disney veterans Jin Kim and Michael Camacho.


While at the castle, Suzu tries to get through to The Dragon that she wants to help, but is constantly pushed away. However, this leads to Suzu becoming more determined to help him, especially after seeing new bruises form on his back. She leaves his castle with a new commitment to discovering his real-world identity, but while leaving is intercepted by Justin and team, who are still looking for the castle. Suzu refuses to help, leading to Justin becoming suspicious of her.

Back in the real world, Suzu is given the suggestion of singing a love song to The Dragon to try to win his trust, an idea she ultimately executes successfully. Justin’s suspicions of Suzu continue to grow, leading him to capture and interrogate her. As he threatens to use unveil on her, The Dragon comes to rescue Suzu, but he gives away the location of his castle in doing so. After his castle is destroyed, The Dragon goes in to hiding elsewhere, having lost trust in Suzu.

To regain The Dragon’s trust, Suzu sacrifices herself by forcing Justin to use unveil on her. Justin looses his supporters while Suzu finally wins the real-world trust of The Dragon, who is unveiled as a pair of siblings who are also motherless and suffering from child abuse from their father. I should note that Suzu is not being abused by her father, but instead distances herself from him socially. After the police refuse to help because of a law requiring they wait 48 hours, Suzu heads to Tokyo to offer help instead. She successfully locates the two siblings and stops their father from attacking them, but it is never made clear what happens after, as Suzu instead returns home and finally reconnects with her father.

While this ending does offer some closure, it doesn’t fully resolve all of the conflicts in Belle‘s plot. Now, I’m not saying that this is an unsatisfactory ending, but I do have to wonder if it had to be partially rushed. That said, the pacing of some scenes in Belle is one of the issues I have with it. Some unimportant scenes are drawn out, while others feel almost rushed. The confession scene at the train station I initially thought dragged on for too long for being an arguably minor scene, but on second thought, the awkward pacing of the scene ultimately works with the animation in it and the awkward tension created between the characters in it as the result of the love confession. The concert scene I think also has too much build-up in it; yes, it’s a visually stunning scene, with some of the best CGI to come out of a Hosoda film, but it may ultimately be too showy and while the upbeat, jazzy music is good, it creates an otherwise awkward silence throughout a sequence that could have been much shorter considering the lack of dialogue.


Overall, I do think Belle is a fantastic film, and I strongly encouraging seeing it in theaters if you can safely do so. I do now regret not seeing it in IMAX because the world design of U is perfectly suited for it. I can only hope that it does receive a 4K HDR release on disk. I am torn on the dub though.

I do think it was a good idea to dub almost all of Belle‘s music in to English (two minor insert tracks remain in Japanese) and I definitely applaud GKIDS and NYAV Post for doing so. I’m also extremely impressed with how much of the English voice cast are entirely new talent. That is a pretty significant risk to take on a title like this, especially considering both of the lead roles are filled by new talent. While it is an incredibly refreshing change to not see lead roles go to “The Old Guard” for once (or the vast majority of rolls in Belle for that matter), unfortunately there are scenes where the lack of experience shows.

There are a shocking number of scenes where lines sounded rushed to match lip flaps, while in other shots flaps are missed completely. When you have long-time industry veterans Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh as the ADR directors, I do have to wonder what happened in some scenes; more than a few seem to suffer from a serious lack of direction. I also have to wonder if COVID necessitated sporadic remote recording. Belle has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in anime in a long time, but some of the English audio tracks sound like they have too much audio processing applied to them. I strongly dislike criticizing dubs because I think they get ripped apart far more than they should with how extraordinarily difficult they are to produce – especially during COVID – and the insane amount of hours and talent that generally go in to their production, but with how important of a role audio plays in Belle especially, there are some scenes I have to seriously question the directing of. I think the voice cast in Belle is fine, and again, I’m very impressed with and very supportive of how much talent is new, but there are scenes I think needed another take. They are few in number, but there are more than there should be for the ADR Directors Belle has.

Clip courtesy of GKIDS – © 2021 STUDIO CHIZU

Now, at the very beginning, I mentioned I have questions about the making of Belle that I’m not sure I want the answer to. Several of the films Hosoda has directed were directly influenced by his own experiences, something that certainty is not uncommon in film. However, I was immediately concerned by the loss of a mother at a young age as a plot device considering Hosoda’s previous film, Mirai, was influenced by his own young son. It is for that same reason that I’m greatly concerned about the use of child abuse, especially the refusal to investigate by the police. Many of Hosoda’s films touch on family building in various ways and while Belle does do that, it suddenly does so in incredibly dark and concerning ways. Belle is the first of Hosoda’s films that has stumped me as to what his intended message is. I believe Belle‘s main theme is acceptance: re-building family through accepting the lost of a parent, and accepting technology while being careful about criticism and the anonymity the internet can offer.

In closing, Belle is an incredibly complex, visually-stunning masterpiece, but it is not without its flaws. While its original trailer gave off some serious Summer Wars vibes, I’m glad it’s not a sequel to it because it goes in such a completely different direction, and I do think it’s a good thing that it does. Belle comes very close to unseating Summer Wars as my only favorite anime film, but I think doing so may take some more time. I’d like to know more about the behind-the-scenes making of Belle, and I think I need more time to process everything that goes on in the film. However, like Summer Wars, I already want to pre-order Belle on disk, and I cannot wait until that becomes an option. I’ve never seen the exact same version of a film in theaters more than once, but Belle might become the first film I have to – it is such a complex mix of emotions that it deserves a longer runtime. It absolutely deserves the 14-minute standing ovation it received at Cannes when it premiered. Pacing and dub issues aside, I cannot think of an anime film more deserving of awards I fear Belle will not get. I so hope that Belle finally becomes the film to unseat Spirited Away as the only anime film to ever win Best Animated Feature. I dare say it: it deserves it more than your name would have.

Belle receives the strongest recommendation to watch I have ever given to a film, anime or not, and is fully deserving of a perfect 10 out of 10 for the original audio version and a 9.5 for the English language version.


For tickets and showtimes or for more information about Belle, please visit the official page at GKIDS. Viewing the Press Kit is strongly encouraged for behind-the-scenes information on the film.

The Belle soundtracks, both English and original audio versions, are available on Apple Music via Milan Records, a Sony Music Entertainment company.

Belle images and clips courtesy of GKIDS. – © 2021 STUDIO CHIZU