One of the best animated films of the past few years, Belle tells a roaring, tragic, uplifting new spin on Beauty and the Beast for the Extremely Online generation. The film follows a young girl who discovers she can overcome her social anxieties by hiding under an anonymous internet persona and overnight becomes the biggest pop star in U, the film’s version of the internet. Where many films portraying the online world show it to be a lawless place rife with danger and the abuses of late-stage capitalism, Mamoru Hosoda has been showing us a more hopeful view of what it can be since he directed Digimon Adventure: Our War Game! 22 years ago, highlighting the internet’s power to help us connect with one another and discover ourselves. In his latest directorial effort, Hosoda imagines a Technicolor metropolis with billions of users, where music has the power to change the world and the internet can help you save a life, all while delivering a rather funny coming-of-age tale with some of the catchiest bangers of the year.
In an interview with Vulture, Hosoda spoke via a translator about channeling the internet through film, the toxicity of social media, working with former Disney character designers, and why he made his Gaston a superhero.
You have been making movies about the internet for over 20 years. How has your perception of it changed over those years?
When I worked on Digimon Adventure in 2000, the internet was mainly used by young people, and it was kind of a new frontier full of possibilities, so we chose to represent it as a big, white, open space. By the time I made Summer Wars, it had a warmer and more vibrant color palette as more people started participating and using the internet. With Belle, I’ve seen how everyone has begun using social media and the internet in general to connect with each other, not just young people. The internet has become much closer to reality, so I wanted it to feel like a full world. We designed U to feel more cramped with a lot of tall buildings. There is no left or right or up and down, so it’s got this mysterious megacity feel to it to show how much people have contributed to this space and how much it’s come to reflect the real world, including the bad. Trolling is a big problem in Japanese society, so the challenge was to make a film that remained positive and hopeful about the future of the internet despite all its issues.
How do you remain hopeful despite the toxicity of social media and the internet?
I think it is hard, but I want young people to not feel defeated by cyberbullying and trolling and to keep on expressing themselves and finding the strength to change themselves and society, which is why I came up with the character of Belle. In the film, Suzu is a quiet girl without self-confidence. But her online alter ego, Belle, is the total opposite, and she has an effect on Suzu in real life: She gives her the strength to protect people in the real world. So I want to show the internet as not a place to be attacked but a place to discover yourself and find hope.
A big source of conflict is the fear of being exposed online, of having your real identity be unveiled to the world.
One big difference between when I was young and young people nowadays is social media. And it seems like the worst thing for young people on social media is to be found out, exposing who they are. They enjoy the freedom of being anonymous and are scared of people finding out who they are. Although social media has the power to connect you to anyone in the world, there is an incredible number of lonely young people in Japan, and they have very low self-esteem. Social media should be somewhere you can enjoy yourself and feel confident, but it seems like in Japan at least, the opposite is happening — possibly in other countries as well. I wanted to empathize with those young people but at the same time to encourage them.
Compared to a lot of movies, especially recent ones, Belle focuses on the interpersonal connections that can be formed online rather than the commercialization of the internet.
This is not Ready Player One, and I’m going to be quite frank here, but I think their expression of the internet is not really cool or forward-looking. And of course it’s imagined by Spielberg, who is an older guy who doesn’t know what the next generation is going to look like. So of course he got a whole bunch of different intellectual properties, different characters, and threw them into one movie. It’s like walking through a shopping mall. I don’t really see the true nature of what the internet is intended to do and how it’s supposed to be used in that movie. I think the younger generation is going to use the internet to really shift their own reality in some ways, whether it’s their present lives or their persona on the internet. That’s what I think our narratives about the internet should be focused on.
Oftentimes, the internet is depicted as this dystopian space that strips us of our humanity and is somehow a negative technological advancement, and those movies to me are just exhausting to look at one after another because they don’t understand how young people use the internet. I think old guys shouldn’t make movies about the internet.
Despite a generally uplifting approach to the internet, you do portray some of its darkness, especially via the character of Justin, who kind of serves as this film’s Gaston but is a superhero.
One of the interesting things about the internet is that everyone believes they’re right. There’s no room for self-doubt. Maybe that’s not the internet but just humanity, and the internet is revealing it and blowing it up bigger. Because there are no police on the internet, some people believe themselves to be cops, like Justin, who also found a way to make this a business. He’s a very American character, which is what happened with Gaston in the Disney Beauty and the Beast. That movie is set in France, of course, but Gaston is very clearly an American character, a self-criticism of the U.S. So I wanted to do that with Justin in Belle, and what’s more American today than a superhero?
One interesting thing about the film is how little you explain about U, its origin, or how it works. Did you consider including more exposition about it at one point?
I think it’s like the real world in that there is a limit to how much one person knows about the world we live in. It’s more important that you feel the scale of the world because you don’t know everything about it and it’s evolving all the time as people add to it. I did add more detail in a novelization I’ve written of the film, but I don’t know if it’s going to come out in English.
The film has a distinct visual style that combines 3-D and 2-D animation. Can you talk about your approach to that?
If you ask me, 2-D versus 3-D is just a difference in the method you use to get to the goal. They each have their own pros and cons, but there is no difference in terms of inherent quality. With Belle, we did the virtual world of the internet using entirely 3-D because, if you’re inside a computer, it makes sense to use CG animation. Then the real world was all done by hand. It was a very intentional conceptual separation for this movie as opposed to just doing it entirely in one mode or the other or just resorting to using 3-D for the difficult parts.
You gathered an international team to work on this film, which is rare in anime.
I wanted designers with different values from all around the world to be involved in creating this film. I couldn’t have created a global society like the one we needed without input from legendary Disney animator Jin Kim or the super-talented architect Eric Wong or the studio Cartoon Saloon from Ireland.
Because the story is set in a more globalized future, we asked ourselves what a global style of animation looks like. Often, I think animation is perceived as either American-made or everything else, and that border used to be really, really strong with a really high wall separating the two. But I think that wall is coming down. There are just different forms of expression that are becoming more recognized, so we wanted to honor that by drawing from different influences and different viewpoints for the story we’re telling.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.