Colors and hearts explode in “Belle”, and maybe your head too while watching this beautiful anime. It takes place in the undefined future, imagining a reality similar to ours, with the same boring settings and obligations, the same confusing relationships and feelings. Suzu (voiced and sung by Kaho Nakamura), a melancholy high school student, lives with her father (Koji Yakusho) and still mourns her long-dead mother. Suzu finds herself in a miasma of grief, which she escapes fleetingly by entering a computer simulation.
Described as “the ultimate virtual community” and cleverly named U, this otherworld is an entertainment as well as a sanctuary. A dazzling phantasmagoria, it allows customers to log out of their reality by slipping into an avatar in U-space. Once inside, users — their real selves obscured by eccentric, sometimes ambitious cartoonish identities — have seemingly unfettered freedom. They can break free, wander like tourists, become someone else, or maybe find themselves. “You can’t really start over,” Suzu hears when she first starts the program, “but you can start over in U.” The catch? Everyone is still on social media.
Self-discovery journeys dominate much of today’s animated film, even if the routes and mileage vary. “It’s time to see what I can do/to test and break the boundaries”, as Elsa sings in “Frozen”. Suzu’s pilgrimage is somewhat complicated – especially visually – but she too must ‘let it go’ and free herself from her past and her trauma, a torment that does not soften the story. Suzu is unequivocally, openly sad. Her shoulders hang and her head bows, she blunders and shrinks from others, sighing and crying. Yet she also asks questions, seeks and continues to try to sing. She lost her voice with grief; she wants it back.
Suzu is a poignant, lovable figure, but she has a welcome edge, a bit of stubborn irritability that’s reflected in the animation, the character’s swirling emotions, and Nakamura’s sensitive, expansive vocal performance. The character design uses the cocky nose, heart-shaped face and huge eyes that are standard in anime, but these conventions never feel static because Suzu isn’t. Sensitively settled on that unstable boundary between childhood and adulthood, she slides from comically youthful (open-mouthed) to sober adult. She may appear younger or older than she is, but she is never less than human.