Mamoru Hosoda draws in his office at Studio Chizu in Tokyo on September 9. (Shiho Fukada / For The Washington Post)
In her life in rural Japan, Suzu is a shy, freckled 17-year-old girl who is embarrassed by her appearance and has lost the urge to play music after her mother’s death.
But in the virtual world, known as âU,â she transforms into Belle, an enchanting global pop superstar with flowing pink hair and a fascinating facial design that resembles freckles.
The animated film “Belle” – a hit in Japan that will make its US debut at the New York Film Festival on September 25 – also carries a bit of artistic rebellion.
The film’s message about empowering women gained attention for reversing the script on anime, the iconic style of Japanese animated films and graphic novels that often portrayed girls and women as weak, empty. meaningless and hypersexualized.
The message resonated in Japan at a time when growing numbers of women are calling for change – most recently exposed by a series of sexist comments from senior Olympic officials that sparked backlash.
Director Mamoru Hosoda in his office in Tokyo on September 9. (Shiho Fukada / For The Washington Post)
“I think female characters in Japanese cartoons are often portrayed through the lens of desire leading to their sexual exploitation, and too much is seen as freedom of expression,” said film director Mamoru Hosoda. , in an interview earlier this month. at Studio Chizu, his animation studio in the suburbs of Tokyo.
From Disney princesses to Marvel superheroes, from anime to pop music, creators of all genres are rethinking how to portray women and girls with agency and dignity, and show that being imperfect is just as beautiful. Global movements such as #MeToo have also underscored a sense of common purpose.
Hosoda said he hopes to draw attention to how Japanese animation has shaped audiences’ perceptions of women and girls, and what it means to be beautiful and powerful.
“Such exploitation [has been] … justified by the idea that it takes place in a fantasy world, and not in reality. But I feel that, surely, such perceptions are linked and will influence our reality, “he added, sipping coffee in his office, decorated with posters and figurines.
Japanese animation, which includes anime and manga, is one of the country’s biggest cultural exports and has gained popularity through digital streaming services.
But the problematic portrayal of women in cartoons, especially in television shows aimed at men, has been a concern for advocates of gender equality. Such depictions are both overt – exaggerated breasts and scantily clad girls – and subtle, such as stories in which girls are damsels in distress and secondary to boys.
In recent years, directors such as Hosoda have sought to challenge the views of Japanese society that may devalue women, said Akiko Sugawa, a professor at Yokohama National University of Japan specializing in gender and gender studies. anime.
âAnime has the power to create and shatter gender stereotypes,â she said.
Sugawa said there is still a lot of room for improvement, including the need for more women and LGBTQ anime directors.
“There are now more positive portrayals of LGBTQ characters, issues, and work that pose questions about societal issues. And with the rise of more diverse anime directors and makers, there are l ‘hope for more change to come,’ said Sugawa.
“Belle” is a modern take on the Disney classic “Beauty and the Beast”. After her mother dies while trying to save a child from danger, Suzu struggles to fit into school. She joins the virtual “U” world as Belle, a talented artist in eye-catching outfits who instantly gains billions of followers.
With the computer skills of her best friend and the emotional support of her late mother’s friends, Suzu / Belle sets out on an adventure to help a mysterious beast. Along the way, Belle performs several songs that can now be heard in all shopping districts of Tokyo. Since its July release, “Belle” has become the third highest grossing Japanese film this year.
A sketch of the movie poster “Belle” in director Mamoru Hosoda’s studio in Tokyo. The film will make its US debut at the New York Film Festival on September 25. (Shiho Fukada / For The Washington Post)
In the film, Hosoda seeks to give women and girls more depth and humanity than is normally portrayed in anime. Through Suzu / Belle, he juxtaposes how Suzu’s inner beauty and Belle’s dynamism coexist in one person. For Suzu, an introverted teenager, her online persona is not just an imagination or an escape, but rather a part of herself that she ends up becoming.
Hosoda said he wanted to give Belle more complexity, in the same way the character of Beast in the original Disney film received that depth.
âMuch like the beast having a duality, I wanted Belle to have two sides as well and focus on how both sides play, ultimately leading to her personal growth,â he said.
Hosoda received a 14-minute standing ovation at his film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in July. Belle was reproduced by cosplayers, who dress up as anime characters. The animated character Belle âperformedâ the title song of the film at the Fuji Rock Festival last month.
On social media, Japanese fans raved about the film’s positive message, stunning visuals and catchy tunes. âThose who are having difficulty in their lives, those who want to change but can’t, I hope they see this movie. It really helps you take a step forward,â one person tweeted.
Hosoda, 53, has long focused on the cyber world in his works, including film versions of âDigimonâ in 1999 and 2000 and his early feature films such as âSummer Warsâ.
His films, especially in recent years, have portrayed women and girls as independent and determined characters, including the ‘Mirai’ of 2018, a story about a boy who goes wild after the birth of his younger sister but learns about it. importance of family ties. The film earned Hosoda an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.
But through âBelle,â Hosoda delivered perhaps her most explicit message about empowering women and the power of technology as a force for good. He said he was inspired by his 5-year-old daughter as he envisions the future she will face as she grows up.
“She’s still in kindergarten and is pretty introverted, so I imagined how she was going to survive once she got on social media and started having all kinds of interactions online,” he said. he declared.
Hosoda said he wanted to challenge narratives warning of growing reliance on the internet.
“For the younger generation, the norm will be to live in both worlds and for both worlds to be their realities,” he said. “And the internet plays a huge role in making their voices heard and spreading around the world.”
“Belle” should be released in American theaters this winter.