The Internet According to Mamoru Hosoda

·4-min read

With “Belle,” anime director Mamoru Hosoda introduces audiences to yet another virtual world, which he dubs “U” — a place where U can be another you, as the title character does, transforming from a shy, freckle-faced high school student, Suzu, to a Disney-style singing sensation named, well, Belle.

Elaborate, conceptually innovative metaphors for the internet are something Hosoda’s fans have come to expect from the man who oversaw the original “Digimon Adventure” short (in which characters escaping to a digital world for Pokemon-esque creature battles) as far back as 1999.

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“I am perhaps the only director who has been depicting the internet in various forms for this long,” Hosoda says, noting how it was a much more hopeful space in the beginning.

That’s reflected in a realm fittingly called Oz that Hosoda imagined for his 2009 feature “Summer Wars.” In the film, a Japanese family takes its fight to Oz, but the space is white and welcoming, like an early 21st century Apple Store, populated with thousands of colorful, cartoony avatars.

“The internet has definitely evolved a lot since then,” Hosoda says. “It has become a closer reflection of our own reality in many ways, which unfortunately means we’ve brought a lot of the problems that we have in reality to internet space: the toxicity, the fake news, all the bullying and cancel culture. How are the next generations supposed to come to terms with all of this and still not lose hope?”

There’s more darkness to the design of U than Oz, for sure, but also more opportunity.

“I’ve thought a lot about this visual depiction of the internet, this abstract idea,” Hosoda says. “A long time ago, before ‘Digimon’ even, other filmmakers attempted to depict it, and you’d often have a very black background with these green glyphs or perhaps this very wire-framey expression” — virtual environments such as those seen in “The Matrix” and “Tron.”

“It was often a very masculine depiction, something boys would like,” he continues. “But I didn’t want the internet to be a world just for boys. It’s being used by everyone, so why is the visual depiction skewing so masculine? It should be more inviting and a space where everyone can participate.”

With that in mind, he conceived Oz as an open space with lots of color in “Summer Wars.” “If it was a clothing collection, this would be the spring/summer collection, where you have a lot more pastel and brighter colors that feel more inviting to a female demographic.”

And for “Belle,” U was imagined not as an alternate world, but an extension of the one we inhabit. “Graphically, we wanted to depict another reality that is this mirrored projection of our own, which is how this idea of a mega-city look came to be,” he says.

Whereas some tend to view Hosoda’s movies as a form of science fiction, he insists that animation allows him to present a much more accurate representation of our current society, starting with the dual way humans now express different aspects of themselves in real life and online.

“I think my generation may be the last to live solely in one world. Look at the younger generation, the kids: They’re born into a world where two realities already exist and they need to figure out ‘how should I express different aspects of myself in these different realities?’” he says.

In “Belle,” the idea is that Suzu is emotionally limited in her real life, but through U, a more empowered projection of herself showing dimensions she couldn’t previously express (inclujding song), through which she is able to grow, feeding back strength to her real-world self.

“It feels almost cramped in a single reality. This internet world has become a kind of second reality where we’re allowed to spread our wings,” Hosoda says. The way he sees it, “we need more realities to express the different aspects of ourselves and our identities — so this massive shift in thought is a fascinating phenomenon,” both to observe and to document in his films.

“I think a lot of other movies and media tend to paint a much more dystopian image of the internet and how it strips us of our humanity,” he says, dismissing conversations about “good versus evil” vis-à-vis the internet as “nonsense,” while admitting that he’s really concerned how his own daughters will adapt, hoping they won’t fall for the “like sickness”: “It’s very much another world that exists that we all need to understand and interpret with our own set of values.”

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