Colors and hearts are exploding in Belle, and your head might be exploding too when watching this great anime. Set in an uncertain future, it presents a reality similar to ours, with the same dreary institutions and obligations, the same confusing relationships and feelings. Suzu (voiced and sung by Kaho Nakamura), a melancholic high school student, lives with her father (Koji Yakusho) and still mourns her long-dead mother. Suzu lives in a miasma of grief, which she briefly escapes by entering a computer simulation.
Described as “the perfect virtual community” and cleverly named U, this other world is not only entertainment, but also a refuge. A dazzling phantasmagoria, it allows clients to escape their reality by slipping into an avatar in U space. Once inside, users—their true selves hidden by eccentric, sometimes inspiring cartoon personalities—enjoy seemingly unlimited freedom. They can break free, hang out like tourists, become someone else, or maybe find themselves. “You can’t start over in reality,” Suzu hears when he first runs the program, “but you can start over in U.” Catch? Everyone is still on social media.
Journeys of self-discovery predominate in modern animated cinema, even if routes and distances vary. “It’s time to see what I can do / Test the limits and break through,” Elsa sings in Frozen. Suzu’s pilgrimage is somewhat difficult – visually, of course – but she, too, needs to “let go” and free herself from her past and her trauma, an agony that history does not alleviate. Suzu is clearly, frankly, sad. Her shoulders slumped and her head bowed, she stumbles and shies away from others, sighing and crying. However, she also asks questions, searches and keeps trying to sing. She lost her voice from grief; she wants him back.
Suzu is a sharp, sympathetic figure, but she has the sweet edge of a bit of stubborn pricklyness that comes across through the animation, the character’s seething emotions, and Nakamura’s sensitive, expansive vocal performance. The character’s design uses the cheeky nose, heart-shaped face, and huge eyes that are standard in anime, but these conventions never feel static because Suzu isn’t like that. Delicately perched on this unstable boundary between childhood and adulthood, she moves from comical youth (open-mouthed) to sober maturity. She may appear younger or older than she really is, but she is always human.