Colors and hearts explode in “Belle”, and your head might too while watching this wonderful anime. Set in an indefinite future, he envisions a reality that resembles our own, with the same lackluster institutions and obligations, the same confusing relationships and feelings. Suzu (voiced and sung by Kaho Nakamura), a melancholy high school student, lives with her father (Koji Yakusho) and still mourns her long-deceased mother. Suzu lives in a miasma of grief, which she eludes fleetingly by entering a computer simulation.
Described as “the ultimate virtual community” and aptly named U, this other world is entertainment but also a refuge. A dazzling phantasmagoria, it allows clients to disconnect from their reality by slipping into an avatar in U space. Once inside, the users – their real selves masked by eccentric, sometimes ambitious, cartoonish identities – have a seemingly unhindered freedom. They can let go, wander around like tourists, become someone else or maybe find each other. “You can’t start over in real life,” Suzu hears when she first launches the program, “but you can start over in U.” The trap ? Everyone is still on social media.
Trips of self-discovery dominate much of contemporary animated cinema, although 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 go” and break free from her past and trauma, an agony that history does not alleviate. Suzu is unequivocal, openly sad. Her shoulders slump and her head tilts, she blunders and backs away from the others, sighing and crying. Despite this, she too questions, searches and keeps trying to sing. She lost her voice from grief; she wants to get it back.
Suzu is a poignant and likable figure, but she has a welcome side, a bit of stubborn spice that comes through the animation, the character’s bubbling emotions, and Nakamura’s sensitive and expansive vocal performance. The character design uses the low-key nose, heart-shaped face, and huge eyes that are standard in cartoons, but these conventions never seem static because Suzu isn’t. Delicately perched on this unstable border between childhood and adulthood, she slips from comically juvenile (gaping mouth) to sober maturity. She may appear younger or older than she is, but she is never less than human.