INTERVIEW: Director Mamoru Hosoda on His New Film Belle

©️2021 スタジオ地図

Mamoru Hosoda is no stranger to films that involve virtual worlds and the internet. With his new film Belle, which is set to be released in North America on January 14, the director of films like Digimon Adventure, Summer Wars and Wolf Children returns to these subjects, while also providing a new spin on the classic Beauty and the Beast story.

Belle is the story of Suzu, an introverted high school girl who discovers the virtual world of “U.” As her online persona, Belle, Suzu becomes a famous singer in “U,” but her unexpected rise to fame is interrupted by an encounter with the mysterious, dragon-like Beast. 

Anime Trending recently spoke to Hosoda, via translator, in an online group interview session that included Asia Pacific Arts, Boston Bastard Brigade, and Honey’s Anime. During the session, the veteran filmmaker spoke about “U”’s visuals and the metaverse, the influence his six-year-old daughter had on Belle, and working with Wolfwalkers’s Cartoon Saloon.

The questions and answers below have been edited for clarity and brevity. We have also marked one of the answers with a spoiler warning, due to it containing key information about the last act of the film.

©️2021 スタジオ地図

Anime Trending: My first question is, what inspired you to combine the Beauty and the Beast story with technological elements? 

Mamoru Hosoda: I’ve always been a big fan of Beauty and the Beast, and what drove me to the story the most was the character of the Beast, and him having a violent side and also a gentle-hearted side. For the internet, I think there are two sides as well. You have your reality, your “real you,” and you have the “you” on the virtual scope. I thought having these two would be a very good way to echo the world that we’re living in, and so that’s where I got the inspiration of combining Beauty and the Beast with the internet.

Asia Pacific Arts: You’ve been kind of depicting the virtual world for a very long time through many of your works and, so with that, I believe you’ve also brought in an architect to help design the virtual world for this film. So, can you speak more to how you’ve seen the internet evolve and how you wanted to show that in this movie? 

Hosoda: I’ve been making internet-themed films for about 20 years, but the internet’s been around only for 26 or 27 years, and I think I may be the only director that’s been using the internet as a theme for film. 

But, the internet allows you to meet many people – wonderful people, talented people – whether they are already famous or, maybe, they still are not well known. And in this film, the main character Suzu, she’s a country girl and through the world of “U,” she becomes a very famous singer. When I tried to design the world of “U,” I wanted to find some talent – I kind of believed that there was someone who would be perfect to design this world out there, and so I found Eric Wong. He’s the architect that designed it. I just found his bio on the internet, and I didn’t even know he was in London.

What we went through in the production and what goes on in the actual film were kind of echoing with each other, so that was kind of interesting.

Boston Bastard Brigade: You’ve spoken about how certain things in your personal life were the seeds that helped to grow many of your films, from meeting your wife’s family inspiring Summer Wars, to your desire to have kids bringing forth Wolf Children. Is there something that you experienced personally that helped to inspire the creation of Belle?

Hosoda: Yes, there was definitely something in my personal life that inspired Belle. I have a six-year-old daughter, and she acts like she’s very confident, and she acts like a princess at home. But once she goes to kindergarten, she just kind of shuts herself down a little bit, she becomes a little bit shy, she only plays with certain friends in kindergarten. So, even a six-year-old can have duality, different personalities, and I thought that was very interesting.

In Belle, Suzu, this very unfamous [sic] high school student, through the virtual world of “U,” she becomes a famous singer. That contrast, or the parallel, definitely came from my personal life experience.

Honey’s Anime: One thing I did want to ask was, how long has production taken to complete Belle and if there were any difficulties completing Belle during the pandemic, or if there are any unplanned experiences?

Hosoda: It took three years from the ideas to the actual completion of the film, and the production itself actually started in March 2020. That’s about the same time that the pandemic started, and so we were definitely forced to shift gears in many ways. Normally, the creators all get to the studio and work together, but we were forced to do pretty much everything remotely and that was definitely a challenge.

Actually, the film got completed only 10 days before the Cannes screening, so we were working until the very last minute. But there’s one good thing that came out of these circumstances, which is that, because of the pandemic, people were staying at home. A lot of artists around the world, they were just staying at home, not really working on anything. So, that made it easy for us to approach a lot of talents around the world, it was good and bad.

©️2021 スタジオ地図

AT: My next question is, given the very high production values in Belle, I was wondering which visual aspect or scene of the film was the most challenging to bring to life. 

Hosoda: The challenging thing, visually, was the creation of the world of “U.” It was just a balance between how realistic it should be and how unrealistic it should be, because I wanted the viewers to see this world – it’s not a real world, but it’s sort of an extension of the internet world that people are all familiar with. So, that was definitely a challenge, but it was worth it.

And recently, there’s [been] a lot of talk about the metaverse, and a lot of companies are releasing a lot of visuals, but none of them are interesting enough. I feel like “U’s” visuals are a lot more interesting, and you kind of want to say to those IT companies that, unless you make it more interesting and more intriguing, no one’s going to buy it, no one’s going to do anything with it. But that was definitely the challenge, just keeping a balance between being realistic and unrealistic for the world of “U.”

APA: So, to dive more into the internet, I think that you’ve succeeded in really reflecting the positive and negative nature that the internet can provide, with comments that people put out there, as reflected in the film.

And so, in Belle, where Suzu is really coming into understanding the best parts of her through the internet and taking that into herself, where do you see that leaves room for the virtual world after you’ve obtained that? What happens after that?

Hosoda: I wanted, as a filmmaker, to portray the world. Values are constantly changing in today’s world, worldwide. This is based on Beauty and the Beast, which is an 18th century folklore where, for instance, a beautiful girl meets a Prince Charming and lives happily ever after. Fast forward to today’s modern world, the definition of happiness is definitely different from back then. So, as a filmmaker, my challenge was how I can express that through my film.

After the characters find who they really are through all this journeying, she [Suzu] becomes very strong, she becomes strong enough to help other people, and I see it as today’s definition of beauty and happiness. By doing that, I’m confident that I was able to make an updated version of Beauty and the Beast with a more modern sense of values.

BBB: One of the things I’m always impressed with in your films is your ability to draw animated humans with true to life emotions the way Makoto cries in The Girl Who Leaped Through Time, Yuki’s reaction to her new backyard in Wolf Children, and Suzu’s anxiety attack on the bridge early on in Belle. Can you describe the techniques you do in order to create these real emotions both in its animation and your voice actors’ performances? 

Hosoda: I think that what’s important is to show how the protagonists are kind of cornered, or what kind of conflict or experience that they have to go through, and how they would react in such situations and what kind of choices that they make.

***SPOILER WARNING***

What choice they make definitely reflects what kind of person they are. So, I think that’s very important, and usually their choices will lead to the story’s conclusion. In the process the characters go through, they may suffer, they may sacrifice something.  In the case of Suzu, she needed to reveal her real identity to save these two boys, and that definitely shows what kind of person or girl she is. I definitely value that kind of approach. 

***SPOILER ENDS***

©️2021 スタジオ地図

HA: The next question I have is actually related to how the film portrays youngsters going through life hardships, whether it be bullying, abuse, or social anxiety. I wanted to know what sort of research and techniques did you take to compile such a storyline? And at the same time, is there a character that you resonate with the most?

Hosoda: As a parent, I’m very curious to see how the young generations will survive this internet age, [an age] that could potentially be challenging or dangerous sometimes. I made this film with the hope that they will survive and they will go through this but still live strongly, go on with their lives strongly.

The character that I relate to the most has to be, I have to say Suzu’s father, because I have a six year old daughter and, she comes to me [saying], “Daddy, daddy” right now, but eventually, she’ll probably grow out of that phase and then, she may not even want to talk to me. But still, like Suzu’s father, I will probably care about her no matter what, no matter what she’s gonna be. So I think that’s probably the character that I relate to the most. 

AT: My next question is, what led to the casting of Ms. Kaho Nakamura as Suzu and Belle?

Hosoda: In the casting of Suzu and Belle, we considered many options — some musical actors, some voice actors that can sing, regular actors that can sing because this character has a lot of singing parts. So, obviously we went that route, and we also auditioned many musicians, and among them, Kaho Nakamura definitely stood out. 

She’s very well-known amongst music fans. She’s not a music icon or anything yet, but the reason that we picked her was her ability to express emotions behind the lyrics. And even though the songs are in Japanese, I thought that her words and her sound, people can definitely pick up emotions from her sound. I hope that the viewers feel the same way about her voice and my choice of the casting.

APA: Kind of just going off of that, in terms of the music, ahead of the US release, I was reading the comments and people are very excited about hearing the music and experiencing that in theaters. I believe music kind of came a little bit later in the process of making this film, but could you share any direction that you had in terms of deciding how you wanted the music to be expressed, and what is a song that you felt really hit home [with the] kind of the message that you wanted through your film. 

Hosoda: Music is definitely a big element in this film and our music team, which consisted of three Japanese members and one Swedish member, we talked a lot about what kind of music would be played or be heard in the global virtual world of “U.” We wanted something that’s not an extension of, like, pop chart [music]. We didn’t want just a pop song that’s catchy, and so we wanted to go beyond commercialism, something that would definitely reflect and carry the message about this vastness of the world of “U.”

And, this is not a story of someone who sings well becoming successful, it’s kind of the opposite. It’s this shy girl, kind of introverted girl, kind of becoming liberated through her singing and songs. So it just couldn’t be just a pop song, and so we definitely had a lot of talks about this. And the first thing, the first song that she sings in ”U,” as well as the song that plays at the Beast’s castle, these two songs are definitely, [they] really carry the message of this whole story and I think it came out very nicely. But the most important song has to be the song “U,” that plays in the very beginning of the film. 

BBB: You worked with Irish studio Cartoon Saloon to help bring the vision of “U” to life in Belle. Now, Cartoon Saloon has their own brand of beauty and their works, like The Secret of Kells and Wolfwalkers. I’m wondering how their contributions helped to evolve your original vision of “U.”

Hosoda: Cartoon Saloon is definitely special amongst the global animation producers in that their art is very abstract and, both in Japan and the US, a lot of stage designs are kind of leaning toward a realistic kind of direction. But then, their art is very, very abstract and they stood out in that way. 

We met Cartoon Saloon’s people when they came to Japan for the promotion of Wolfwalkers, and I actually helped them promote the film because they made Wolfwalkers and I made Wolf Children. So, there was an interview set up for us to meet, and we found out that we shared a lot of ideas and we both sided with the wolves instead of humans. We hit it off very well, and that’s how we met. 

After Wolfwalkers, they were going to head off on vacation, but that’s about the time when the pandemic hit. So, I was like, “Why are you talking about a vacation? You can’t even go anywhere.” So, they were staying at home and that’s when I approached them and said, “Well, do you want to work with us?” That’s how the collaboration came about. The scene where Belle goes to the Beast’s castle, the scene in particular had a lot of contribution from the studio and Tomm Moore, the director, had a lot of direction for that scene, so that it came out very nicely. 

BBB: Fantastic. I’ve been a fan of that studio for many many years and seeing the two of you collaborate like that, it was just kind of a dream come true for me.

Hosoda: I think we definitely share a lot of ideas, and then, I think partly it’s because of them being Irish, and their history and how they got invaded, and stuff like that. One of the things that we share is that we both value nature a lot, and that’s how the double stories came about, and it’s definitely different in that sense. So, I hope that that collaboration can be appreciated by the US viewers as well. 

©️2021 スタジオ地図

HA: Knowing how the internet miraculously is the bridge to the rest of the world, how do you feel about your film being released outside of Japan? And are there any other studios or companies that you want to work with in the near future? 

Hosoda: It’s definitely exciting that our films are going to be released in a lot of countries around the world, and this was not possible before obviously, and I’ve been in the anime industry for about 30 years. But before, there was definitely a wall. In America there was American animation, and in Japan there was Japanese animation, and Europe had their own animation, and there were like borders or walls in between, and it was kind of hard to get over. 

But with the internet being widely available, that’s definitely changed a lot. Streaming services [especially] made it possible for people around the world to see animation and films produced in so many parts of the world. Maybe before, American films were widely available everywhere, but other than that, it was your own country’s films that you got to watch. 

So now, it’s really nice that we can enjoy a lot of content through movies being released worldwide and all these streaming services. As a filmmaker, I feel like we still have to kind of get over this wall, like forget about the borders and just collaborate and make something great together. I think that’s very important. And at the same time, I think the films themselves have to change over time to be relevant to what’s happening at the time. That’s my take on that. 


BELLE is distributed by GKIDS in North America and is now screening in theaters. 

After several years of writing for video game sites in his home country, Melvyn currently dedicates his focus to writing news articles and the occasional review for Anime Trending. He spends a chunk of his free time self-learning Japanese through manga, light novels, and the internet.
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