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.

Homunculus (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Susumu Nakoshi (Go Ayano) is suffering from amnesia, homeless and living out of his car, when a strange man named Ito Manabu Ito (Ryo Narita) taps on his window. Ito asks Nakoshi for seven days in which to change his life and give him something to live for. Nakoshi goes along with Ito, who tells him his plan to conduct an experiment: to drill a small hole in the front of his skull and see if he experiences any supernatural abilities. Nakoshi agrees to the trepanation and soon finds himself able to see the inner form of people, their deepest traumas. These take the form of a homunculus, which can appear in any shape relative to the trauma the person has experienced, from bizarre monster-lie figures, to more abstract manifestations. Nakoshi sets out with his newfound ability and manages to help some individuals, but things take a dark turn when he is forced to confront a trauma from his own past.

“Homunculus” is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto (Ichi the Killer) and directed by Takashi Shimizu (Reincarnation). A dark fantasy, toying with elements of psychological horror and traditional monsters in the form of the homunculus, it is an intriguing premise and the scenes where Nakoshi wanders the streets of Kabukicho seeing the various representations of inner turmoil, with some very inventive designs, is fun to watch. It would have been great to delve into more character’s psyches, but with the constraints of a film’s running time we are limited to only a handful of problems for Nakoshi to solve. The special effects on the homunculi are mostly good, showcasing a variety of creative designs. The homunculus comprised entirely of an ever shifting torrent of jewellery charms was particularly unique. The film touches on a number of dark issues, in particular violence and sexual violence. It is a film that also has a number of uncomfortable moments that will no doubt spark debate or contemplation, mostly concerning the schoolgirl character, where the film leaves perhaps a little too much unsaid about the intended message. The acting by Ayano and Narita is exceptional, giving themselves over to the weirdness of the premise and making it as believable as it can be. Shimizu’s stylish modern direction, using text message overlays for example, brings us right into the story in  visually interesting way.

The film offers a unique look at psychological trauma, by turning it into something tangible in order to tackle it. We see that behaviours are conditioned by past actions and how these inner sufferings are often hidden from the rest of the world. While it deals with difficult subjects of mental health, sexual abuse, violence, neglect, suicide, miscarriage, death, and other issues, it smuggles these things in to a story that on the surface is a straightforward supernatural mystery. The blend of supernatural and psychological is an interesting one, drawing comparisons between ancient belief systems of spirits and modern science around neuropathy. The film touches also on ideas of ethics in science. A fun adventure drawing on mythology and psychology to deliver a fascinating look at the inner-workings of the human mind.