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Belle is the virtual world anime that Mamoru Hosoda always wanted to make

Not only because he put subwoofers on a giant whale

Belle is the anime that Mamoru Hosoda has always wanted to make. The latest film from the director of Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and Mirai centers on the story of Suzu, a shy high school student who rediscovers her love for singing when she enters the immersive online world of “U.” Shedding her quiet and reserved self, Suzu adopts the identity of Belle, a gorgeous singer with a beautiful voice beloved by all those around her. When one of Belle’s concerts is interrupted by a mysterious entity known as the “Dragon” who terrorizes the denizens of U, she embarks on a journey to forge a bond with the beast unlike any she has known before.

Hosoda’s fascination with the transformative and reflective potential of virtual worlds goes as far back as his work on 2000’s Digimon: Our War Game (later re-edited into Digimon: The Movie in the West). Belle’s world of U feels like both a continuation and an evolution of the ideas glimpsed in Digimon’s digital superhighway, as well as Summer Wars’ OZ.

Polygon spoke with Hosoda over Zoom about the origins of U, his work with Cartoon Saloon’s Tomm Moore and Frozen character designer Jin Kim on Belle, and the surprising link between Final Fantasy and the giant subwoofer-encrusted whale seen in the film’s opening.

Fictional online worlds are a recurring staple of your films — what is about the Internet that continues to inspire you as a filmmaker?

To your point, I’ve been making movies that kind of deal with the theme of the Internet for the past 20 years, all the way up to today. During this time, I feel there’s been a massive change or a shift in how the Internet is being used and how it is being perceived.

Back when I was making Digimon, I think that the Internet was a much more young space. it was this emerging technology that people were going to be able to use and the younger generations were going to take advantage of to smash a lot of the establishments of the old world and develop something completely new and their own. It was like this new toy that children were playing with that had all kinds of different possibilities. But fast forward to today, I think the Internet has emerged as much more of as a reflection of our own reality now that we have all generations using it and how it’s become such a necessity in our daily lives.

The Internet is no longer what it was 20 years ago, in many ways. We have a lot of our own issues that we have in our present, real society that have been transferred into the Internet, like the toxicity and fake news and a lot of these kind of negative aspects. I feel because of that, a lot of other films or works try to project the Internet in a much more negative light. But for me, I want to help the younger generations come face to face with all these issues that we know exist in the Internet and overcome them, to somehow still turn it into a much more positive space where they can do a lot of things.

What was it like working with architect Eric Wong on creating Belle’s online world of U? How did you first discover his work, and what were some of the inspirations you looked to in crafting the look and feel of its universe?

When we were designing the world of U, we knew we needed someone who was really special and had amazing talent. Similar to how Belle is actually this unknown girl living in the suburban countryside of Japan, we wanted to take a similar approach by searching on the Internet for someone who could possibly handle the task of creating U. We found Eric’s portfolio and at the time, we had no idea who he was, how old he was, where he was located, or what kind of background he had. It was only after reaching out and talking with him we discovered he was a very young architect, I think about 27 years old, living in London who had absolutely no moviemaking experience whatsoever. We were able to overcome that because of his amazing talents and the fact that he put himself out there on the Internet to be discovered. It shares a lot of parallels with the story of Belle in that way.

Concept art for the fictional immersive online world of “U” in “Belle.”
Concept art for U in Belle
Image: Eric Wong / Studio Chizu

You collaborated with animator Jin Kim (Frozen, Tangled, Big Hero 6) and Cartoon Saloon’s Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart on the character design of Belle and background art of the film, respectively. What motivated your desire to seek out these collaborators?

The world of U in Belle is very massive on a global space. When Jin Kim and I were initially talking about the character design of Belle, we wanted to make sure that international background was reflected in all the designs that we came up with. I think there’s not too many interactions between US-based animation studios and animation production culture and Japan or other overseas-based animation studios, so I wanted to help change that in some ways because entertainment is shifting to this much more global medium of ideas.

When Jin and I decided to work together to find out what such a collaboration would look like and what kind of design or direction that would result in, it was a really great experience. I had a similar conversation with Tomm Moore at Cartoon Saloon where we felt the animation space was dominated by these major studios and the smaller independent studios like Studio Chizu and Cartoon Saloon really didn’t have as large of a global stage. I think we were all kind of pointed in the same direction when we decided to collaborate.

One of the stand-out designs of Belle is a giant whale with subwoofer speakers on its back that Belle rides in the film’s opening. How did the design for that creature come about?

The designs and the idea that I had specifically for the whale was that it wasn’t so much a whale equipped with speakers, as much as it was the whale’s costume in many ways. The “whale” is kind of wearing this wardrobe with this costume and coming out into this virtual space. I actually had several designers come up with ideas, and this was true for some of the other character designs as well; we had several designs from which we picked the one that I felt best represented the idea of what we were trying to convey.

Ultimately we settled on a design by Isamu Kamikokuryo, who previously worked as an art director on the Final Fantasy series. We originally had him do a design for the Dragon’s castle, but given his background I said, “Hey, why don’t you take a crack at designing this whale,” and in an instant I knew this was the basis for the whale we wanted to go with. He really captured what I was looking for.

Belle standing atop a giant whale with subwoofers on its back. Image: Studio Chizu

Music plays a significant role in the movie, not just in the personal story of Suzu (aka Belle), but in exploring the themes of loneliness and connection in a digital world. What was it like working on the music for Belle? Do you have a favorite song?

Music is certainly the a centerpiece of this movie in many ways. Part of that is because we didn’t want to tell the classic story of a girl from the suburban countryside who rises to pop stardom, but more a story about a soul that was somehow suppressed seeking freedom and and attaining that strength through this journey. That’s why we didn’t want to go after the very popular sounding songs or look towards the top US Billboard. We wanted to really go for something much, much deeper where it is about her heart, or her soul, seeking this freedom from some form of suppression, which is meant to encourage a lot of people going through through similar phases.

We had four different composers for this particular movie, three of them Japanese and one from from Sweden. And each song with lyrics was was done by a different composer, with the exception of the dancing scene between Belle and the Dragon and the ending where Belle sings in front of everyone, which were both done by Taisei Iwasaki. I think he did an amazing job of really capturing the themes of the movie. I really couldn’t decide a favorite from the soundtrack because I think every composer brought their best game to the table. But with more platforms like Spotify, I think music has been freed in many ways to a much more global and accessible platform, so I’m looking forward seeing to which songs resonate with audiences after they’ve seen the film.

Belle is out on select IMAX screens on Jan. 12. The film opens in theaters on Jan. 14.