Described as “the ultimate virtual community” and cleverly named U, this other-world is an entertainment but also a refuge. A dazzling phantasmagoria, it allows customers to log out of their reality by slipping into an avatar in the U space. Once inside, users — their real selves obscured by eccentric, sometimes aspirational cartoonish identities — have seemingly unfettered freedom. They can cut loose, bop around like tourists, become someone else or maybe find themselves. “You can’t start over in reality,” Suzu hears when she first fires up the program, “but you can start over in U.” The catch? Everyone is still on social media.
Journeys of self-discovery dominate much of contemporary animated cinema, even if the routes and mileage vary. “It’s time to see what I can do/To test the limits and break through,” as Elsa sings in “Frozen.” Suzu’s pilgrimage is somewhat complicated — certainly visually — but she, too, needs to “let it go” and cut free of her past and her trauma, an agony that the story doesn’t soften. Suzu is unequivocally, openly sad. Her shoulders sag and her head bows; she blunders and shrinks from others, sighing and weeping. Even so, she also questions, searches and keeps trying to sing. She lost her voice to grief; she wants it back.
Suzu is a poignant, sympathetic figure, but there’s a welcome edge to her, a bit of stubborn prickliness that’s expressed through the animation, the character’s churning emotions and Nakamura’s sensitive, expansive vocal performance. The character design employs the pert nose, heart-shaped face and huge eyes that are standard in anime, but these conventions never feel static because Suzu isn’t. Delicately perched on that unstable boundary between childhood and adulthood, she slips from the comically juvenile (mouth agape) to soberly mature. She can seem younger or older than she is, but she’s never less than human.
Before you meet her, though, writer-director Mamoru Hosoda introduces U’s virtual reality, giving you a seductive eyeful. (His movies include “Mirai” and “Wolf Children.”) The first image in “Belle” is of a thin, pale horizontal line cutting across the otherwise black frame, a visual that wittily suggests the first line in a drawing. This line rapidly changes and, as it does, the contours of the U world emerge, as do its mysteries, oddities, personalities and possibilities. At first, the line seems to consist of a series of rectangular shapes that look like beads on a necklace, a design that amusingly evokes the spaceship in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — and then it explodes into the kaleidoscopic realm of science fiction and U.
A rapturously beautiful expanse filled with whirling candy colors and charming character designs, U gives Suzu a virtual reality escape and gives you a great deal to go gaga over. That introductory straight line soon expands, growing ever more complex and giving way to intricate geometric forms. As the shapes shift and mutate, Hosoda uses old-fashioned perspective — differing sizes and planes, parallel edges and vanishing points — to create an illusion of movement through depth. That’s crucial for the user (and viewer) experience in U, where rectangles turn into what look like parts of a motherboard, only to then transform into mazelike spaces that give way to soaring buildings in a crowded modern cityscape.
Suzu enters this sphere through an app on her cellphone. With a few clicks, she is over the rainbow and flying through U, where she becomes Belle, a hyperbolic beauty with a plaintive singing voice and a billowing curtain of pretty pink hair. The U app’s “body-sharing technology” allows users to experience U alongside other revellers, to interact with an array of colourful, comical and vividly imagined beings, some borrowed and tweaked from myth (or thereabouts), others plucked from pop culture climes. Some of these appear more human than others; more than a few look like collectable anime figurines with exaggerated features and body parts. It’s a raging party of the cute and the kooky, though with shivers of menace.
Suzu continues to travel between reality and U as the story evolves and takes a detour into a fairy tale. Much of what ensues after this narrative turn is familiar, and while not everything that happens then works equally well, it’s unfailingly touching. Hosoda throws drama, meanies and a couple of romantic rivals (predictable cuties with floppy hair) into the mix, but to his credit, the story remains focused on its heroine. Suzu is moving between two different, outwardly irreconcilable worlds — each with its own textures, shapes and colours — a divide that reflects and speaks to her internal struggles. And while she sets out to escape, what she finally needs is to find a sense of wholeness even when everything seems broken.
Rated PG for mild virtual violence. In Japanese, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
©2022 The New York Times Company