The new animated movie Belle is a marvel. The latest from Mamoru Hosoda, director of 2018’s acclaimed Mirai, Belle features skilled art direction that remains coherent and focused in even the busiest scenes, and I loved the English soundtrack for its haunting beauty, which never strays from its Disney inspiration. It is a digital Beauty and the Beast story about Suzu, a 17-year-old girl who finds confidence in VTubing as a pop idol anonymously for the internet. While the film is very candid about how internet fame can be a positive force in one’s life, for Suzu, the empowerment of online anonymity is just a means for overcoming her depression. It offers a flawed interpretation of the internet that doesn’t reflect how anonymous identities often become an end in themselves. The result is a well-intentioned movie that misunderstands how young people actually experience identity and emotional intimacy online.
Those who go into Belle understanding its fairy-tale inspirations and its place in the isekai tradition (more on that in a bit) won’t be surprised by where the story goes, but I am going to discuss that story in some detail, so…
While she’s shy and plain in her day-to-day life, Suzu’s internet persona Bell is confident and commands the attention of millions. As her online moniker not-so-subtly hints might happen, she finds herself drawn toward the cold and standoffish Beast, a violent and angry internet persona who struggles to trust anyone. Director Mamoru Hosoda told Kotaku that the movie is a modern take on Beauty and the Beast, but the film fits into another storytelling tradition as well. Belle is also an isekai, a genre of Japanese fiction in which a character travels to an alternate world. Recognizable examples include Sword Art Online, Re:Zer0, and even Inuyasha. In isekai featuring female characters, the heroine usually returns to her “real” home at the end of her journey of growth and self-discovery in another realm.
The protagonist Suzu is no exception. At the very end of the movie, she can only truly connect with the Beast when she sheds her pink-haired persona, the implication being that her dazzling online incarnation wasn’t actually authentic, wasn’t actually her. Neither the Beast nor Suzu’s friends could accept the globally popular celebrity that she became in the online world as her “real” self. This moment of shedding her digital persona is presented as honest, vulnerable, and a turning point. As a result, Belle portrays the online persona being shed as a shallow construction that lacks humanity. That was when the film’s plot fell apart for me, even as its stunning visuals and music carried the rest of it.
In that moment, the film is saying that our offline identities are authentic in a way that our online personas can never be. It’s a notion that made me indignant. The film had inadvertently cheapened the sometimes very real, sometimes life-saving internet relationships that can form between complete strangers, and placed the supposed authenticity of offline experience on a pedestal. In one scene, Suzu discovers proof that Beast had been singing Bell’s songs while offline. I wish that he had been able to accept her simply because her kindness had healed him, not because she finally told him who she was in “the real world.”
I felt rather dejected at the end of the film, because it seems to deny the basis by which so many queer teenagers have found meaningful existences on the internet. Especially when the internet gives us a place to express our genders more freely, our online lives become more indicative of our true selves than the people we are in our “real” lives. Suzu “grows up” by overcoming her depression and being a more active participant in her “real” life, where she’s safe and accepted for who she really is. Belle is a movie about Suzu finding a version of herself who could smile; it is a movie about fairly conventional girlhood, about someone who can easily exist in a society built for cisgender, heterosexual individuals. But for me, growing up as a nonbinary kid in the Republican south, there wasn’t a safe childhood to return to when I logged off every night. And even young people who aren’t queer can have online experiences that are just as real and indicative of their true identities as anything that happens in their offline lives. It doesn’t feel right that Belle’s plot so casually dismisses the value of our anonymous online personas.
The movie didn’t simply fail to reflect my experience; it asserted that my relationships with faceless strangers were less meaningful than the “real” people who didn’t know me at all. I formed some of my best friendships on the internet. When I shattered my phone screen in college, a complete stranger sent me money to get it fixed up. The people I met on anime forums advised me on college admissions and law school. While same-sex marriage wasn’t yet legal in my home state, I talked to strangers about my fictional crushes. I had a life online that was so much more vibrant and interesting than all the art awards on my shelf or the honor student certificates on my wall. I was constantly fighting for my life in a country that wanted me to disappear. While I was online, I was able to get a taste of who I could be, in those corners of the internet that weren’t waging war against me.
Of course, I didn’t use my real name. I swapped pseudonyms like seasonal outfits. I could be a scientific term in the morning, and I could be a color in the afternoon. My name meant “serene” during the winters and “melancholy” during sweltering summers. I could be a sound, a texture, or an architectural style. I was a solid, a liquid, and a gas. All of those words would describe me better than the person I was offline: a closeted kid in one of the most evangelical places in America. If a “Beast” appeared in my life and required me to shed all of that, then I would tell him to go on his merry way. He did not deserve the version of me that was tormented and small. Nobody needs to show that side of themselves to another, even if it’s the life they’re forced to live most of the time.
As the film begins, Suzu is thoroughly uninvested in her own school life, and I saw myself in her unhappiness. But by the end, she returns home to her father as the cheerful daughter that the film (and society) wants her to be. It sees the problem as being within her, not with the world she lives in. The pop star persona is presented as an exciting opportunity for the mundane Suzu, but it’s ultimately just a vehicle for curing her depression, a way of practicing her inner strength before presenting it to the offline world. The mask itself does not hold intrinsic value. And that was when I realized that the movie was mostly intended for cisgender, heterosexual audiences. It was not the movie for me.
Belle is a forward-thinking movie in how it represents the internet as both nourishing and dangerous, but its logic is still stuck in the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ era of the web, and the false idea that our online experiences are somehow not “real life.” In our current era of VTubing, fans don’t pressure their favorite digital celebrities to reveal themselves. It’s understood that they are meaningful and important to their fans and probably to their creators, even if they never remove the mask.
The movie clearly understands that our invented little internet identities are good. I just wish that it could have followed all the way through, and valued Bell as much as it valued Suzu.