Mamoru Hosoda has been fascinated with the digital world since his career in animation started. From his directorial debut with the first Digimon Adventure film and its follow up Our War Game!, all the way to his brand new awards season contender Belle, the director has repeatedly returned to the theme of connections we find online—and told io9 about his optimistic view of the digital future.
Belle, Hosoda’s latest picture at his co-founded animation house Studio Chizu, follows Suzu Naito (Kaho Nakamura/Kylie McNeill), a shy, reserved highschooler living in the rural Kōchi prefecture of Japan. Still grappling with the childhood trauma of losing her mother, Suzu finds herself frustrated with a grief that robbed her of a childhood passion for singing, a hobby she shared with her deceased parent. When one of her few school friends introduces her to a viral online app called “U”, a Second Life-esque metaverse where billions of users across the world hang out as fantastical, biometrically generated digital avatars, she finds herself regaining the confidence to sing again as she transforms into the digital pop star Belle. As she becomes an overnight sensation in the world of U as a mysterious new starlet, Belle crosses paths with a mysterious beast-like avatar hiding a dark secret in the digital world—and the real one, pushing Belle and Suzu alike to open themselves up.
Even as examining the human connection to our online identities has been something Hosoda has engaged with repeatedly over his directorial career, Belle—releasing theatrically in the U.S. tomorrow after highly anticipated premiere at Cannes and in Japan last summer—finds itself arriving with an added sense of timeliness. As the concept of the “metaverse,” and all the potential (and skepticism) such a concept entails becomes the hot buzzword of the moment, its fantastical depiction of a thriving world shared by billions across the world offers a fascinating insight into Hosoda’s own optimistic view of our online future. To find out more, io9 recently spoke with Hosoda via translator over video chat about his career, the process of making Belle throughout the covid-19 pandemic, and how he sees the evolution of the internet itself. Check out the full transcript below.
James Whitbrook, io9: Mirai had elements of the fantastical in its time-travel narrative, but Belle marks a return to your exploration of digital worlds and technology. What made you feel like now was the time to revisit?
Mamoru Hosoda: I started directing and creating movies that deal with the theme of technology and the internet about 20 years ago with Digimon Adventure: Our War Game! and—between 20 years ago and now, I think the internet has evolved in many ways. If you look at my history, my filmography, about 10 years ago I made Summer Wars, so, this 10-year span is a good time to explore how the internet and this technology is shifting in relation to us as humanity and as a species, and to revisit that relationship and how we interface with the internet and with each other through it. So, perhaps every 10 years, I feel there’s a massive enough shift hitting.
io9: I’m glad you mentioned Summer Wars—that movie explored our relationship to strangers online, whereas coming into Belle, when Suzu enters U as Belle, we get to see the very visceral public reaction to her presence and she becomes a viral hit. How do you think the world’s relationship to the internet has changed since Summer Wars, and how we treat each other online?
Hosoda: Definitely, there’s a massive shift in our relationship to the internet and internet actions. If you rewind the clock back to Summer Wars, I felt that there was a clear line, or distinction, that where we exist right now is reality and what the internet is, is a tool of convenience in many ways. And that line was very clear. Fast-forward to today and Belle, and I think there’s definitely this idea of two realities. The internet is no longer a tool to achieve certain tasks, it’s become a projection of our society in many ways. And for that reason, I think a lot of content creators or filmmakers depict this internet world as this dystopian society and this thing that strips us of our humanity because its presence has grown so much in our daily lives. But, take this idea of there being multiple realities, I think there are also multiple societies or faces humans decide to show within reality. So the current reality we occupy and exist physically, we have one face or facet of ourselves, but on the internet, we project a much different image. I think we can relate to this. But I’d argue all of these are what completes that person, and both of those are real in many ways. So, Suzu and Belle may feel like polar opposites of the spectrum—and they’re very different—but the same. I think this is something we can all relate to if we look at how people perceive us and what we try to project, etc. etc.
io9: The character design for Belle was quite interesting, as you and Studio Chizu collaborated with outside artists, like Disney’s Jin Kim. What made you seek a collaborative process out here?
Hosoda: I would say the pandemic has played quite a large role in this—and the lockdowns began escalating right at the time we were going into production. We really had to transform our pipeline to adapt to these new working environments. On the one hand, while it put a strain on our production pipelines, I think it opened up some possibilities and doors with international collaborations—and while everyone has to stay at home to work on some things, we can use the internet, which is, of course, a big theme in Belle—to actually help the production of the movie itself. Even for me, personally, I think it was really an eye-opening experience in many ways, so... just being able to find talent from across the globe and really integrate that into whatever it is we’re working on.
io9: Belle arrives in America with a renewed timeliness, as the tech world looks towards concepts like the metaverse, as well as NFTs and cryptocurrencies. As a creative, how do you feel about the current directions these technologies are trending toward?
Hosoda: The world is going to continue to change, regardless, and technology is going to play a large factor in that. Instead of looking at it through this very dystopian lens, I try to look at it more objective—and even optimistic. I know there’s a lot of conversations surrounding NFTs, both good and bad. Trying to look at everything holistically, I think there’s certainly some kind of value in assigning value to digital assets—and with the rate at how people create these, there is a value assigned. I think normalizing that is going to be a big part of this next generation. Even the metaverse that you mention, people talk about it being another repeat of Second Life, but the fact that it is being developed means there’s a certain degree of demand for these services. So, if there’s a way that could be balanced with the more commercial aspects and run this as a service—if we could solve that—perhaps everything can coexist in some kind of way.
Belle hits U.S. theaters from this Friday, January 14, in both subtitled and dubbed formats.
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