Belle (2021) by Mamoru Hosoda

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a shy high-school student living with her father. When her best friend Hiro (Lilas Ikuta) invites her to “U”, an online virtual reality world, Suzu is transformed into “Bell”, a beautiful avatar with a voice that soon attracts millions of followers. While her online alter-ego gains popularity, Suzu remains largely unnoticed at school, aside from her childhood friend Shinobu (Ryo Narita), Hiro, and “Kamishin” (Shota Sometani), the lone member of the canoe club. Suzu’s enviable online life is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious figure in the guise of a beast, known as Dragon (Takeru Sato) whose shocking appearance and pugilistic lifestyle pique her curiosity. She sets out with Hiro to discover who is behind this avatar.

Mamoru Hosoda returns to some of the themes of his earlier film “Summer Wars” with this modern take on the “Beauty and the Beast” story set partly online. The world of “U” differs from most depictions of online environments with the futuristic addition of biometric transfer, meaning that individuals own biometrics are used to generate their avatars, and a fully immersive environment, allowing them to see and feel as if they were in that other world. There is plenty of familiarity in the plot of “Belle”, with Suzu having lost her mother; struggling to “find her voice”; several teen romances; a geeky friend; and the idea of an outsider figure being helped by the protagonist; but the film combines these elements into a unique story. Despite the nods to the older fairytale, and the inclusion of a few references to Beauty and the Beast (roses, a romantic ballroom dance), the film actually diverges significantly from this to the extent that it has few of the same themes. “Belle” tells its own tale creativitely, often breaking into collage like scenes of multiple people talking on webcams, or the touching montage of Suzu’s memories of her mother. This inventiveness transforms a straightforward story into something more heartfelt and engaging, utilising the techniques of online discourse (multiple references, and a more fragmentary style) to create something that feels modern despite its traditional storytelling. The animation is excellent with the online scenes reminiscent of the aforementioned “Summer Wars” and Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” in the numerous avatars. There are moments that are almost transcendental as we see the vastness of this online space, a modern tower of babel of a million voices calling in unison. Music plays a major part in the story and the songs by a team of artists are inspiring and performed with spirit. While the film is a little overlong, perhaps over ambitious in the number of subplots it attempts to weave in, it manages to hit its emotional beats every time.

“Belle” deals with several themes. Through the online world Suzu is able to rediscover her true self again following a withdrawal into herself following her mother’s death. This transformative power of technology is shown in more stark contrast with the story of Kei, who is escaping a tragic homelife of physical abuse and attempting to create a hero for his younger brother to aspire to. It is interesting to see a largely positive take on the idea of social networks and online spaces with the central message being that they should be used to supplement and aid us rather than becoming an all-consuming other life. The film also finds time for a satirical dig at internet commercialisation, with the self-important guardians of “U” appearing in front of a bank of sponsor logos. Hosoda does an incredible job of dealing with difficult themes, of loss and child abuse, in a family friendly film that manages to be uplifting and positive.

Summer Wars (2009) by Mamoru Hosoda

OZ is a virtual online world where friends can gather and companies do business; connecting the global population in a vast virtual playground. As well as this it is also used for businesses, governments and other officials, forming a vital part of every aspect of human life. Kenji (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a high-school maths whizz (almost national champion at the maths Olympics) working as a low level system engineer on the site, when he is offered an unusual summer job by an attractive older girl, Natsuki (Nanami Sakuraba): to come home with her for the holidays. When he arrives at her home, he finds that he is to pretend to be her boyfriend for the duration of the trip, to please Natsuki’s ailing grandmother (Sumiko Fuji). Soon Natsuki’s whole family has arrived at the house, including the suspicious Wabisuke (Ayumu Saito) who left years before for America. While Kenji struggles to maintain his cover and befriend the numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, OZ is attacked. This act of cyber-terrorism has far-reaching consequences as industry computers go haywire and satellites are set on a collision course for earth. Kenji and the family around him must work together to prevent a global catastrophe.

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda from a screenplay by Satoko Okudera (the two also worked together on “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, “Summer Wars” is an exciting blend of family drama and technological thriller, moving from scenes of the family at dinner to the virtual world of OZ, where avatars such as the semi-legendary King Kazuma, do battle. There is a lot of heart and comedy in the film, derived from situation and character rather than cheap gags, that makes you feel a strong connection with Natsuki’s family. Kenji is also a fun protagonist, completely out of his depth in social situations, but extremely competent with maths and computers. It is impressive to see such a large family portrayed and while we are not given much information about the members, the group scenes give a sense of the chaos of such gatherings, with them speaking over each other and numerous things going on around the table. The story throws in a lot of elements, and with this cast of characters it’s hard to get bored. OZ is an interesting portrayal of an online space, a sparse clean look populated by a variety of different avatars, although the actual workings of it are somewhat fantastical. The animation overall is excellent, with expressive character design and a detailed world. Akihiko Matsumoto’s score is entertaining, with a traditional countryside feel to the rural family home shifting to distinct digitalised tune for the online world.

“Summer Wars” offers an interesting take on the idea of a metaverse, a secondary online world which mimics and has become an integral part of human society. It points out the danger of putting everything in one space like this, with even the police and fire service working through the OZ system. The film’s central message concerns communication both online and offline, drawing a comparison between the online characters who can communicate in every language on the planet, and the more traditional family gathering. The primary importance of communication to human relations is a theme that the film drives home. The grandmother is able to rally numerous people to their cause through family and acquaintances, using the phone; while Natsuki is later supported by a large online community. The technology is simply a conduit for human connection, and should not be seen as a replacement for it. The central village being an AI also speaks to this idea that humanity must always remember themselves and what is important, rather than allowing technology to change our attitudes towards one another. If there is one complaint about the film it is that Kenji and Natsuki’s relationship is not really touched on much throughout, but there is so much going on that it is hardly surprising. An entertaining film that brings up a lot of ideas about how humans will relate to each other in online spaces and a warning not to forget that it is communication that builds strong societies.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) by Mamoru Hosoda

Makoto (Riisa Naka) is a high-school student who is often late and a little disorganized. She spends her free time hanging out with her friends Kosuke (Mitsutaka Itakura) and Chiaki (Takuya Ishida), a recent transfer student. After slipping on something in the science laboratory, Makoto finds herself with the ability to travel back through time. Able to rectify mistakes, or simply avoid difficult situations, she enjoys trying out her newfound powers. After speaking with her aunt Kazuko (Sachie Hara), Makoto begins to wonder if she should be using this ability for something more important. As well as helping out fellow students, by setting them up on dates, she also wonders about her own relationship with her friend Chiaki.

“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” is based on a 1960’s serialized novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui that has been adapted a number of times through the decades. This film version is directed by Mamoru Hosoda, with a screenplay by Satoko Okudera. Makoto is a fantastic heroine, a tomboyish figure who encapsulates a teenage energy, whether irritated by her sister eating her pudding, or confused by her own feelings for Chiaki. Her peculiarities help her feel like a real character, as opposed to a simple archetype. The animation is expressive and action-packed, including small moments of movement that capture a sense of realism. Also impressive are the background details, particularly in the crowd scenes of the town or Makoto’s school that give the feel of a lived-in world. This also makes the scenes when time is frozen later in the film more powerful, with a sudden realization that everything has stopped. Seeing birds hanging in the air, or ball games locked in time is surprisingly effective in comparison with the lively scenes that precede it. The story is relatively straightforward as a high-school romantic comedy, but does include a few twists with the inclusion of time-travel. There are moments that are best not to consider too deeply, as with many paradoxes thrown up by the notion of time-travel, but they work within the fantasy nature of the film.

In the latter half of the film the story takes on a more contemplative aspect, with time itself becoming a central figure, one which warps and changes the world. We learn that Chiaki is from a future where a particular painting no longer exists, and he also makes reference to there being far more people in the present world than the future. A slightly worrying statement that is not expanded on. We also see two moments when characters who would have died are given a second chance through time-travel. “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” shows off the fun ‘what if’, but also brings us back to a consideration of what it means to be unable to return to former situations or change time (a reality Makoto must finally return to). We must learn to live with our mistakes, to seize the moment when it comes to romantic relationships, or friendships, in short to live without do-overs. The film ends on a bittersweet note that underlines the fact that it is about more than the comedy and romance, that it has a real message for the audience of grasping the present and setting yourself hopefully towards the future.

Child of Kamiari Month (2021) by Takana Shirai

Primary school student Kanna (Aju Makita) lives with her father (Minako Kotobuki). As the school marathon approaches it stirs up difficult memories of the death of her mother at the previous year’s event. When Kanna breaks down at the marathon and runs away, she meets Shiro (Maaya Sakamoto), a rabbit god who tells her she must run to Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, gathering victuals from various shrines for a feast of the gods that is due to take place soon. Shiro tells her that her mother was an Idaten, a god of running, and Kanna is to take on that mantle. The two are also joined by Yasha (Miyu Irino), a demon with a grudge against the Idaten running gods who lost them their own place among the deities.

“Child of Kamiari Month” is aimed firmly at a younger audience with a formulaic and familiar plot and characters, including a strong-willed heroine and magical side-kicks. The film follows Kanna on a journey of acceptance as she comes to terms with her mother’s absence, creating a fantasy framing to better help both her and the potential audience learn how to grieve. The animation can be static at times, but the film ably sidesteps this issue of motionless backdrops with the introduction of a magical bracelet that freezes time. This provides an interesting environment, real world yet transfigured by raindrops hanging in the air and people frozen in place, as Kanna, Shiro and Yasha, along with various deities, remain mobile. It is fun to see the gods of the various shrines, but it seems like an opportunity was missed to do more with them. Most only appear briefly in a montage of Kanna collecting the produce for the feast. It would have been interesting to explore some of the characters and significance behind them. The score by Jun Ichikawa and Naoki-T is one of the highlights of the film, part whimsical fantasy but shifting to darker tones as the weight of Kanna’s sense of loss becomes more apparent.

The film’s has a simple yet noble message for its audience, showing young children what it is like to deal with the death of a parent, with a comforting and supportive cast of characters helping the protagonist overcome her grief. This is well done, subtly transforming the lost parent into a magical persona with exceptional abilities, no doubt how she is seen by her daughter. Her mother’s divinity forms the second strong theme of the film, with Kanna lacking this ability and perhaps concerned about living up to her expectations. Later in the film Kanna learns that it is a person’s will rather than their genes that define their greatness. It is an excellent message for children, especially those dealing with something similar. The film is also and interesting look at the religious heritage of the society, showing the various gods and shrines emblematic of a polytheistic, collective society, as opposed to a monotheistic one. This is further emphasised by Kanna’s reliance on Shiro and Yasha as companions on her quest. Kanna is both coming to accept the loss of her mother and also reconnecting with a wider society, coming to understand that she is far from alone. “Child of Kamiari Month” is a fun fantasy adventure that tackles difficult themes, though it may lack appeal outside the younger age group.

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Spike Spiegel (Koichi Yamadera) and Jet Black (Unsho Ishizuka) are bounty hunters and the sole crew of the spaceship Bebop. The show opens with plenty of questions as to their backgrounds and relationship, not least in the intriguing noirish flashbacks we see featuring Spike. The pair live in a precarious financial situation, chasing bounties that just about ensure they have enough food to live. Their crew is later expanded when they unwittingly come into posession of a Shiba dog with  expermentally enhanced intelligence named Ein; and later a woman on the run from serious debts named Faye Valentine (Megumi Hayashibara). Their motley crew gains another member when an orphaned super-hacker named Edward (Aoi Tada) joins them.

The strength of “Cowboy Bebop” is in its blend of genres, part-noirish crime thriller, part-western, with elements of science-fiction and comedy. This allows for a variety of storylines and the majority of episodes are stand alone, both narratively and thematically. The stories are fast-paced, necessarily so as they set up fresh villains, problems, concepts, worlds and solutions in the space of a single episode. There are a few episodes that could be considered throwaway or filler, such as the horseriding bounty hunter, but the majority do a great job in creating a novel challenge and cast of secondary characters that keep things interesting. One unusal aspect of the characters is that they seem quite isolated from themselves, more so than the usual odd couple relationship, they are simply five individuals who happen to be thrown together and the series only briefly touches on the relationships between them. Some of the best episodes are those that uncover the backstories of Jet, Spike and Faye, as these give a much-needed emotional counterweight to the visual bombast of gunfights and chase sequences.

From the opening double-bass strains of the theme song, the “Cowboy Bebop” score perfectly captures the atmosphere of a space western, with a fusion of twanging guitars and jazz. Most episodes have a musical link in the title and the score is clearly a huge part of the enjoyment of the show, giving it a sense of style and paying homage to great science fiction and western films. The visuals likewise exudes cool, with instantly recognizable characters whose design speaks to their character. It is also fun to note references to contemporary brands in the backgrounds. The animation of the fight sequences is one of the highlights of the series, with an incredible sense of movement and danger. This is helped immensely by some stunning editing that bolsters the frenetic sense of danger. All parts work in tandem, the design, editing and score, to create something that is eye-catching and engaging.

“Cowboy Bebop” gives us a future that is far from utopian, using its platform to comment on contemporary societal problems with a depressing prognosis that things are not heading in a postive direction. We see ecological catastrophe in the shape of asteroids that have decimated the planet earth; the ills of privatised medicide and unscrupulous companies; corruption rife in the government and police systems; and overall a lawless society where morality is ever shifting. References to both science-fiction and western genres, representing the future and the past, further emphasises this sense that humanity is doomed by the same weaknessess that have dogged its past, such as greed, crime, and selfishness. Despite advances in technology in the show, the society itself has failed to progress, with outlaws, bandits and criminals still barely kept under control, and an almost imperceptible line between bounty hunting vigilantes and offical law enforcement. This focus on time also plays a prominent role in Faye’s story and asks interesting questions on who we are and where we are going. Faye, suffering amnesia, is perhaps the best representative of the show’s philosophy as a whole, with no idea of either her past or her future. Human’s in “Cowboy Bebop” are simply buoyed along by the vicissitudes of fate, struggling against a deeply unfair system. A fantastic action sci-fi western with bags of charm, enjoyable characters, and a pointed satire on contemporary society.