Release Date(s)2021 (August 30, 2022)
Studio(s)Studio Chizu/Toho (GKIDS/Shout! Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A
- Overall Grade: A+
Belle (aka Ryu to sobakasu no hime) is a 2021 animated film from Studio Chizu in Japan, written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time). A literal translation of Ryu to sobakasu no hime would be “The Dragon and the Freckled Princess,” but the English-language title is arguably more appropriate, since it’s a much more oblique reference to the true nature of the narrative. Belle has many different layers to it, both literal and figurative, and there are stories within its stories for viewers to uncover.
On the surface, Belle is a straightforward reality vs. fantasy tale, contrasting the travails of modern life with the escapist allure of virtual worlds. Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a young woman who lost her ability to sing after her mother died while saving a child. She struggles socially at school, never feeling like she belongs in any group setting, and she secretly longs for the kind of popularity exhibited by classmates like Ruka (Tina Tamashiro). Even her sworn protector Shinobu (Ryo Narita) can’t help her with that, but when her computer genius friend Hiroka (Lilas Ikuta) encourages her to develop an avatar in a Second Life-style online social media world called U, Suzu finds her voice again as the wildly popular Belle. Yet virtual life still isn’t free of human complications, and when Suzu/Belle encounters an angry character named The Dragon who tears his way destructively through the U, she becomes obsessed with uncovering the real person behind the avatar, and doing what she can to help him.
Belle might seem like an exploration of the ways in which social media inhibits interpersonal connections as much as it expands them, or a critical look at the ephemeral nature of internet popularity, but while those elements are present in the film, they’re just two of the more obvious layers. Critically, avatars in the U aren’t freely chosen by their users, but instead are created by the program itself using biometric data. As a result, life in the U isn’t simple role-playing escapism; rather, it becomes a reflection of the real people involved. Suzu becomes Belle because that reflects her heart’s desire to be able to sing again, and to be less socially awkward. By the same token, the destructive nature of The Beast is a reflection of the internal pain of its own user. Suzu is sufficiently self-aware to understand why Belle fulfills her needs, and so she’s the only one in the U who’s able intuitively grasp that the violent destructiveness exhibited by The Dragon is its way of lashing out against the user’s real-world pain.
It's at this point that the superficial layers to Belle are stripped away in favor of the core narrative. At its heart, Belle is a familiar fairy tale, but this fairy tale exists within a virtual world that’s defined by real human emotions, so the fantasy is a direct metaphor for the reality that lies behind it. Suzu’s key insight is that “The world’s the same everywhere.” Whether real or virtual, all worlds are simply a reflection of those who inhabit them. Pure escapism isn’t possible, since people can’t escape who they are, and what the real world has made them. Yet true healing can only come through genuine human connections, so Belle is unable to soothe the savage beast that is the Dragon while both are confined to the U. Only Suzu can help by trying to ameliorate the very real suffering of its use, and since that makes her finally understand the sacrifice that her mother made, she ends up healing herself in the process.
In lesser hands, Belle could have been a simplistic diatribe against social media, but under the guidance of Mamoru Hosoda, it became something far deeper than that. Belle received a 14-minute standing ovation at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, and while the audiences at Cannes can be notoriously fickle, it’s still a testament to what Hosoda achieved. The animation is indeed dazzling, but there’s more going on under its admittedly pretty surface that’s well worth exploring.
Belle was animated digitally at 2K resolution, using a combination of 2D and 3D elements, framed at 2.39:1 for its theatrical release. For this 4K version, the 2K Digital Intermediate was upscaled and then graded for high dynamic range (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are included on the disc.) It’s a striking example of the ways in which the 4K Ultra HD format can yield significant benefits even when working from lower resolution sources. While the nature of animation means that there isn’t necessarily any improvement in actual detail, since that detail was never captured in the first place, it does demonstrate the clear advantages of upscaling at the uncompressed 2K source, rather than from the highly compressed 1080p end product on standard Blu-rays.
Regardless of the original resolution, Belle is an extraordinarily dense film, with an abundance of visual detail spread throughout every widescreen frame. This creates issues for compression algorithms, which struggle to keep up with the overwhelming amount of data that’s involved. There simply isn’t enough space on a standard Blu-ray to store all of it, and so real detail is discarded during the authoring process. The greater breathing room of the UHD format means that less compression is necessary, and that fact pays dividends in the case of a film like Belle. No, there isn’t greater actual resolution, but the detail that’s there is much better resolved, and that still results in an apparent increase of fine detail for the viewer—everything is crisper and clearer. The line art is better resolved compared to the Blu-ray, which makes it seem sharper. The only thing that really betrays the 2K source is the smallest of the abundant text bubbles that pop up on the screen in the U—some of the tiniest text becomes unreadable without true 4K resolution. The lower levels of compression also means that there are much fewer banding artifacts, which is an issue that plagued the Blu-ray.
The benefits of the HDR grade are a bit more subtle. While the contrast in Belle is variable by design, with the real-world settings having deliberately flatter contrast than those in the U, the overall contrast range does seem slightly improved compared to the Blu-ray. That helps make the details pop a bit more in the U, but it also provides a bit more dimensionality to the backgrounds in the real world—the forested hills seem to have just a touch more depth to them than they do in SDR. There also seems to be a little depth to the colors, though again that’s partially due to the lower levels of compression. For example, Belle’s red flower dress doesn’t look more intense, but it does seem to have more subtle color detail to it. While individual improvements like these may be subtle, taken as a whole, they have a dramatic impact on the overall look of the film.
Audio is offered in Japanese or English Dolby Atmos, and English 5.1 descriptive audio. Subtitle options include English, English SDH, and Spanish. Dub vs. sub is an age-old argument in the world of anime, and there will never be a consensus opinion, so it’s nice to have both the Japanese and English versions available in the same Dolby Atmos mix. Whichever you choose, the sound quality will be the same. (For the record, while it is indeed a good English dub, I still recommend the Japanese version, as the voice acting still has the edge.) Either way, it’s a relatively subdued mix, and while there’s surround and overhead engagement, those channels tend at a low level relative to the fronts. Effects such as raindrops in the real world can be heard gently pattering overhead, but not in a way that distracts from the emphasis on the main channels. It’s only in the U where the surrounds are driven more energetically, but again, they don’t overwhelm what’s happening up front. The music is the real star of the show, and it sounds wonderfully clear and robust from beginning to end. It offers some significantly deep bass as well. This isn’t necessarily a spectacular mix, but every element in it works in concert to support what’s being shown on screen.
The Shout! Factory/GKIDS 4K Ultra HD release of Belle is a three-disc set that includes a 1080p copy of the film on Blu-ray, with extras, as well as a second Blu-ray with additional extras. (There are no extras on the UHD, in order to maximize the bit rate.) The set also includes a 60-page booklet, six art cards, a decal, and a fold-out poster. Everything is housed inside of a rigid slipcase with key artwork from the film. The booklet features English and Japanese lyrics for the songs, an interview with Mamoru Hosoda, staff comments, cast interviews, reviews, and promotional artwork. It’s a beautiful package, though it’s worth noting that the menu design on the discs makes it difficult to determine which item has been selected. The following extras are included, all of them in HD:
DISC TWO: FEATURE FILM (BD)
- The Making of Belle (44:04)
- A Conversation with Director Mamoru Hosoda (29:13)
- The Music of Belle (15:32)
- Finding the Voice of Belle (11:49)
- Scene Breakdown: The Station (10:37)
- Scene Breakdown: The Ballroom (12:06)
- Hosoda @ Animation is Film (18:05)
- Hosoda Draws Belle (8:50)
- Design Gallery (165 in all – 13:57)
- Kylie McNeill Performs “Gales of Song” (2:37)
- Trailers (6 in all – 6:57)
The Making of Belle combines interviews with Hosoda and other members of the cast and crew with behind-the-scenes footage to provide a fairly comprehensive look at the production of Belle. Divided into ten chapters, it covers the design of the characters, the costumes; and the environments of the U; the selection and recording of the music and songs; the animation process; the conceptual work involved in creating U, the casting and voice recording; and the film’s first screening. Some of the most interesting material involves the way that Hosoda hired actual costume designers, architects, and computer theorists to help guide the shape of the world and the story that he wanted to tell. While the interviews are all in Japanese, subtitled in English, this version of the featurette does use an English-language narrator.
In A Conversation with Director Mamoru Hosoda, the filmmaker reflects on his life, the growth of the internet, and his inspirations for Belle. He also shares some thoughts about the state of the animation industry, and the ways that digital animation allows artists to create different shading styles, like in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The Music of Belle is an interview with music supervisor Taisei Iwasaki, composer Ludvig Forssell, and composer Taka Chiyo. They discuss the complications involved with using multiple composers and songwriters, and why it was necessary to have one music supervisor to hold everything together. Finding the Voice of Belle focuses on the recording of the English-language dub for Belle. It includes interviews with Dave Jesteadt, who produced the English version, as well as other members of the English language crew. They made the decision early on that transitioning from English voices to Japanese songs wasn’t going to work for this film, so they ended up adapting the songs (with the help of the composers) to maintain a more organic whole.
The two Scene Breakdowns offer Hosoda stepping through the two scenes on his tablet and giving explanations for the choices that he made—they’re a sort of a visual commentary. Hosoda @ Animation is Film is a Q&A with the director at a screening of Belle for the 2021 Animation is Film festival in Los Angeles. Hosoda Draws Belle shows him drawing Belle’s face while describing his reasoning behind the choices that he made. The Design Gallery features an extensive collection of character designs, concept art, and backgrounds for the film. Kylie McNeill Performs “Gales of Song” is a live performance of the song by the English language artist, who accompanies herself on piano.
DISC THREE: EXTRAS (BD)
- Behind the Japanese Dub (41:31)
- Promo Events with Hosoda and Cast (40:27)
- Special Dialogues with Cast (24:17)
- Interview with Takeru Satoh (6:02)
- Eric Wong Interview (26:33)
Behind the Japanese Dub offers the flip side to featurette about the English dub on the first disc. It’s an extensive look at the recording process for the original Japanese language version, interspersing footage from the sessions with after-the-fact comments from the cast. It also demonstrates the precautions that had to be taken while recording in-person during the pandemic (though Hosoda was guilty of wearing his mask under his nose at times!) Promo Events with Hosoda and Cast is a collection of footage from promotional appearances for the film’s Japanese release. It’s always fascinating seeing the celebratory nature of publicity for animation in Japan, since it’s an art form that tends to be taken for granted in the United States. Special Dialogues with Cast is two different conversations between cast members after seeing the completed film for the first time. They also answer a series of questions about making Belle. The first one features Kaho Nakamura and Takeru Satoh, while the second has Nakamura and Lilas Ikuta. The Interview with Takeru Satoh appears to be taken from the same sessions, but with the actor speaking solo instead. The Eric Wong Interview is really a virtual conversation between both the London-based production designer and Hosoda. It’s moderated by Jonathan Clements, the author of Anime: A History. (Speaking remotely is entirely in keeping with their relationship, as the two collaborated via the internet during the production of Belle and never actually met until the premiere.) They provide a detailed breakdown of the design process for the film.
It's an impressive collection of extras to accompany an outstanding presentation of the film. The only thing missing is the soundtrack CD that AllTheAnime has included with their set in the UK. The Blu-rays in that set will be Region B-locked, however, so this GKIDS set has the clear advantage for North American audiences. Belle is essential viewing for anime fans, and also for fans of animation in general, so this UHD set gets the highest possible recommendation.
- Stephen Bjork