There’s some amazing big-screen spectacle in this weird postmodern emo photo-love drama from Japanese anime director Mamoru Hosoda, whose previous film Mirai elevated him to auteur status. Suzu, voiced by Kaho Nakamura, is a deeply unhappy and lonely teenager at high school, who lives with her dad. Her mum died some years ago, attempting (successfully) to save a child from drowning and Suzu can’t come to terms with the zero-sum pointlessness of this calamity: a total stranger was saved but her mother died. Or not zero in fact: while her loss increased the sum-total of unhappiness, the most popular boy in school – a friend since they were little – is tender and protective towards Suzu.
Her life is complicated further when she is persuaded to join a virtual reality meta-universe called U, a glittering unearthly city like a next-level Manhattan or Shibuya. (Presumably entry into this fantasy world needs a VR headset, although oddly this is not made plain.) Participants have their biometrics read and get an enhanced avatar of themselves and Suzu finds that she is now “Belle”, an ethereally beautiful young woman with quirky freckles and a wonderful singing voice. To her astonishment, Suzu finds that Belle is becoming a colossally famous singer – but at the very high point of this meta-success she comes across the Beast, who disrupts one of her concerts: a brutish, aggressive outcast figure loathed by the self-appointed vigilante guardians of U.
You can spend quite a bit of time trying to guess the Beast’s real life identity – disregarding the obvious red-herring options – and my guesses were wrong. The point is perhaps more that Suzu and Belle, like Peter Parker and Spider-Man, have a poignantly dysfunctional relationship with each other: one is an unhappy loser and the other is a superstar. It is an intriguing story, although I have to admit to feeling a bit bemused at the arbitrary way the Beast story is inserted into the already tense and interesting situation of Suzu/Belle and her relationships with people at home and school.