In an age where "the metaverse" is the tech world's big new craze, Mamoru Hosoda's visions of life in virtual reality are more vital than ever. The Oscar-nominated director seems to return to the topic of the internet once every decade or so: with a pair of Digimon short films at the turn of the millennium, Summer Wars in 2009, and now with Belle, his social media musical take on the classic Beauty and the Beast story.
CBR had to chance to speak to Hosoda about how he brought his vision for Belle's metaverse to life, the classics and canceled projects that shaped the film, and what's the deal with all the whales.
CBR: The online world of u in Belle is similar in many ways to Oz in Summer Wars, but different in others. How has your vision of the internet changed in the 12 years between the two films?
Mamoru Hosoda: This is a recurring theme and something I think about a lot. I feel that before, the internet felt like this vast open space of possibilities where the young generations were gonna do a lot of new things to disrupt how we live in our current society, but as time has gone on, I think the internet has shifted into this space where almost everyone participates in some way, shape or form, and it's become a much more accurate reflection of our own society in some ways. In Digimon and Summer Wars, I think I depicted a much different-looking internet even visually, whereas in Belle, a lot more of that toxicity and fake news and basically all the problems that we have in our own social construct are brought into this digital world, so I think that's how the depiction of the internet in the world of u in Belle has shifted.
But both films have internet whales. Is there any story behind the whales?
If you have a chance to go visit Kochi Prefecture, which is where the reality portion of the movie was set -- after the pandemic, I hope that you do [visit] -- Kochi Prefecture has a very interesting and respectful relationship with whales. The local sake that they make, suigei, which means "drunken whale," the two characters, the kanji to write that, and even the label has a picture of a whale's tail, so as a region in Japan, they really, really love whales.
For me, whales are a unique kind of existence that in my mind transcends mankind in many ways, and right now in our present-day society, they're almost a symbol of nature or environmentalism, but to rewind the clock back to, for example, Moby Dick, and whales are this giant force of nature that, by conquering the whale, somehow mankind is able to conquer and overcome nature's greatest power. So for me, how whales have been perceived throughout our history means they have some kind of greater wisdom or [are a] greater creature in some ways, which is why when Belle is standing on the back of a whale, she feels really, really special. The fact that she's standing on a whale singing to the entire world, she is perhaps the only person who is able to do that in this universe.
What would your avatar in the world of u be?
I get asked that question a lot, and I think my avatar would be Belle. A lot of people can relate to the idea of their projection looking something like Belle, but maybe depending on the person, Hiro is more relatable, or perhaps the dragon is more relatable, but if you kind of watch the movie with that image or that projection in mind, I think that's a good experience.
You worked with a lot of animators from studios around the world, including Disney and Cartoon Saloon. How did these international collaborations come about?
The world of u is quite universal in my perception, and I don't know if we call it the same thing in the US, but are you familiar with GAFA? Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple. So that's basically the major IT companies that shape how we interact with the internet. I'm sure each one of them has their own corporate-driven vision of what the internet world might look like, but the world of u as I see it transcends that in some way, and it's a world of various different cultures created by people who are coming from many different backgrounds. So conceptually, this world that we imagined, we wanted to translate that into practice, so we searched and wanted to work with various artists from around the world, including Jin Kim from Disney, Tomm Moore from Cartoon Saloon, Eric Wong who is a London-based architect who designed the world of u with us, and another student named Emmanuelle who we found online but was a really talented student, so being able to collaborate with this very global team made for a more accurate representation of the universe of u that we envisioned.
Belle takes a lot of inspiration not just from the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, but specifically the animated Disney movie. Is that your favorite Disney movie?
I think we all, in some way, love the story of Beauty and the Beast, and for me personally, the 1946 Jean Cocteau version I'd say is equally influential, but perhaps because everyone has seen the Disney interpretation of Beauty and the Beast, it's easy to draw parallels with that version. But in the Jean Cocteau version, the Beast is depicted really attractively and in our movie, it's called a dragon, but if more people had seen the Jean Cocteau version, they might have made a similar comment that "Oh, this was really heavily drawing from the Jean Cocteau version!"
But it is true that I really do like Disney's version of Beauty and the Beast. One of the key animators, Glen Keane, who worked on the Beast's animation and movement, I had the honor of meeting him and I asked him before I made Belle, "I'm thinking about making my own version, but how did you animate the Beast?" We had an interesting conversation, but finally now, three years later, I was able to complete my picture and he watched it and congratulated me, which was a really happy moment for me.
Earlier in your career, you almost directed another Beauty and the Beast-esque story: Howl's Moving Castle. What was the biggest difference between your vision of that film and the one Miyazaki ended up making?
I'm very impressed, this is the first time someone asked that question and drew that parallel between the two movies, so I commend you on your sharp interviewing and journalistic skills.
But Howl's Moving Castle does share an interesting similarity in that this young girl is transformed into this old lady, which I think is similar to Belle in many ways, and 20 years ago when I was directing Howl's Moving Castle until, of course...
[Hosoda makes a decapitation gesture] I was fired and Miyazaki took over, there were a lot of things I've wanted to do and express that I've held onto for 20 years and now I'm finally able to do through my own picture, Belle. After being let go from Howl's Moving Castle, I worked on a TV show called Magical DoReMi, and I attempted to do some of the things I wasn't able to do in Howl's Moving Castle as well. So I think since Howl's Moving Castle, there's been a bunch of projects where I've attempted things that I've wanted to do.
It seems we're out of time, so thank you! I very much enjoyed the movie, and I've been watching your movies since The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and it's really great to talk to you.
Thank you very much!
First released in Japanese cinemas on July 16, 2021 as Ryu to Sobakasu no Hime (literally translated "The Dragon and the Princess of Freckles,") Mamoru Hosoda's Belle will begin its theatrical run in US cinemas on Jan. 14.