Finding Your Way: a BELLE Review

TW/CW: This article will discuss grief. The movie itself deals with death of a parent and there is abuse against children. I don’t discuss the abuse in the article, but know that it’s in the movie if you choose to see it. Also, this does get spoiler-y.

Grief isn’t linear.

Grief is the kind of beast that presents itself differently every time. You may have grieved one way for someone or something, but when grief shows up in your living room for another thing it’s wearing a different outfit and walking around with its shoes on.

When we’re stuck in grief, sometimes we forget the good things about the person that may have left us. We forget the impressions they left us with or the characteristics they gave us that we carry out in our own personalities. This is what happened in BELLE.

Official trailer of BELLE in English

Directed by the amazing Mamoru Hosoda, BELLE follows a high school girl named Suzu as she goes through grief and how to cope with trauma. When she was young, she and her mom bonded over music. Playing the piano, writing music, creating lyrics, and singing. Through the child-like flashbacks of her mom, you can tell that her mom was her hero, her light.

Then, one day a horrible storm causes a child to get stuck on a small patch of land surrounded by a roaring river. Almost like second nature, Suzu’s mom puts on a life jacket and rushes into the water to save the child. In the end, the child is found with the life jacket, but Suzu’s mom is nowhere to be seen. This is how we’re introduced to what would be Suzu’s grief and trauma.

After the tragic passing of her mom, Suzu becomes stuck in a moment of loneliness and sorrow. She doesn’t talk to her dad, she distances herself from classmates…she gives up singing. Could you blame her? As a child, she begged her mom not to leave her and now her mom is gone. Any child would see it as being abandoned. I won’t go into detail, but I’ll say when she did try to sing her body physically rejected the idea. It was like her mind said “SING” and her body decided it would rather destroy itself that utter a single note from her lips. Just like her mom abandoned her, Suzu abandoned singing.

Feeling hopeless, Suzu turns to the app called U for escape and comfort. If you’ve seen Summer Wars, also directed by Mamoru Hosoda, this will be a very familiar concept. For those who haven’t, U is a virtual world where anyone can become anybody. Imagine a world that’s almost like Sims, Second Life, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media your heart can think of mixed into one universe. The app prides itself on being a technological wonder for the world. It touts that it’s technology can make anyone feel safe and welcomed. Something new and exciting, something for an escaping mind. Suzu is lured in. With a messy face, she created her avatar which basically scans her face and a picture she used as a reference. Bell is created and Suzu, through her, is thrust into the world of U.

Image of a girl with brown hair named Suzu wearing U-branded ear buds. She is synchronizing her image with U to make her avatar Bell.
Suzu wearing U branded earbuds as she synchronizes herself with her U avatar Bell.

At first, Suzu is overwhelmed and taken aback by all the bustling U avatars called AS. As she sits in that moment, she is reminded what U preached, she is a new person; she is someone else. In that moment, Suzu steps outside of herself and begins to sing in the crowded square of U. At first, others told her to stop singing, but after she found her way…she caught everyone’s attention.

The best way to describe Suzu’s singing is honest. All the songs she sings, sung by Kaho Nakamura in her debut film, are her feelings. Her sorrow, her joy, her happiness, and her love. By being Bell, changed to BELLE by the U fandom, she can escape her real life and find some sort of peace and comfort in just being someone else and singing without fear.

Here is where I’ll stop spoiling too much and talk honestly to you. While being BELLE, Suzu can be someone more confident and flashier, but deep down she is still her and that shines brightest near the second half of the movie. There is a soul in U that is troubled. They call him The Dragon. He looks like a mix of Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle and Alucard’s jackals. He is known in U as being a violent terror. He became known as a great fighter in the ‘Smash Bros’ side of U (again think Summer Wars if you’ve seen it) and then he became a menace because he fought dirty. Somehow through all the chaos and screams he caused during one of BELLE’s concerts, Suzu wasn’t afraid or angry. She was concerned and emphasized with him.

Image of a jackal-like beast named Dragon as he flies through and interrupts a BELLE concert.
Dragon interrupting the BELLE concert

To me, the best part of the movie was Suzu’s interactions with Dragon. As she tried to help him, to care for him, the reminder that she is her mother’s child came to light. While everyone wanted to know what his IRL identity was, she wanted to know why he hurt and if she could do something to help him. Did she see herself in him? Maybe? That’s for you and God to debate. I feel the selflessness she holds in her heart led her to want to save him from whatever it was that bothered him. The amount of love she holds in her heart led her to him. Now, do I feel she was in love with him? No, I personally don’t. She has a love interest, but that’s not the focus of the movie. This part of the movie reminds us of many things, but the one thing I feel it reminds us of is that love comes in many forms. Love isn’t always romantic or sexy, sometimes it’s platonic and motherly. You can love someone and not want to marry them. This should be obvious, but I feel we sometimes forget that when watching anime or any other sort of media like BELLE.

Image of a tall jackal like monster in a cape staring menacingly at Belle.
BELLE and Dragon face to face in his castle

We’re so conditioned to think that people who show love must become a couple. We don’t play with the idea that some just remain close friends that will never ever think of being romantic or intimate. ESPECIALLY if you view it through a hetero-normative lens and feel every boy and girl must become love interests or that’s their only path in their friendship. BELLE plays and tests that notion to the very end, and still Suzu chooses another to show romantic love to.

In the end, just like her mom, Suzu puts herself between someone who needs help and the danger that is threatening their livelihood. Without a second thought, she metaphorically puts on a life jacket and dives in to save someone who needs her help. When its all said and done, she thinks back to what her mom did and reflects on what she’s done. In that moment, she finds peace with her trauma and begins the path to her own healing. In a grown-up way, she realizes that the narrative she created of her mom abandoning her was not the case. The heart and love that she bathed in from her mom never left, it was always inside her. Her mom’s memory and spirit live on through her and that’s the comfort she needed.

Image of Suzu floating above golden orbs of light while having a golden orb in front of her. The rest of U is in the horizon.
Suzu singing to comfort Dragon in U.

Grief is not an easy thing to tackle. Neither is the trauma that comes with it. It can feel like forever and can make the nicest people forget themselves. If I could impress onto anyone going through it, I would say that grief becomes easier over time. Grief doesn’t become smaller; your heart grows bigger to fit it. With all that space in your heart, you are able to cope with it and still be you at the end of the day. Suzu is a good example of that. Her mom passed when she was in elementary school, and she still felt the pain of it as a seventeen-year-old girl. Grief and trauma don’t go away overnight. They pass in time when you’re able to let go or grow from it. There isn’t a timeline for anyone, move at your own pace. Keep in your heart that the person who passed is still inside you. Their memory lives on in you. Never forget them, treasure the good times, remember them fondly, and lean on the people you have now in your life because they love you and will be there for you.

BELLE is the movie to watch if you want some personal healing. If you enjoy slice of life, this is it. If you want a good cry, this is it. Movies like this, movies that capture what it means to be human, are needed and valued pieces of media.

8.5 BELLE dresses out of 10

Image of Suzu's avatar Bell in a white dress and a white headband. In Belle's hand is an AI that looks like a sea butterfly.

BELLE was released in theaters in the US on January 12, 2022. DVD and Blu-ray pre-order is available right now!

If you are going through grief and the things that come with it, here are some suggested resources to help you get started on your path to healing:

Grief/Psychology Today

Grief, Loss, and Bereavement

Going with Grace, Death Doula (Instagram)

Warmlines (a hotline directory if you need someone in your state to talk to)

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