Mamoru Hosoda on How He Created 'Belle's' Virtual World 'U'

In Mamoru Hosoda's Belle you can become whoever you want to be thanks to the social media-turned-VR platform "U".

This is certainly the case for lead character Suzu, who takes on a virtual alter-ego named Bell, the English translation of her name's meaning, who is a beautiful, pink-haired avatar with freckles.

After learning to love singing again thanks to the anonymity "U" gives her, Suzu becomes an internet sensation and her fans start calling her Belle.

Hosoda spoke with Newsweek about how he came up with the idea for the virtual world of "U", as well as how a Disney classic inspired the film decades before he first thought of the story.

How Mamoru Hosoda Created 'Belle's' Virtual World "U"

"U" is an imaginative platform that allows users from across the globe to interact with each other in a virtual world through their avatars.

Each person's avatar is created by taking a scan of a person's body and transforming it into an online, creative representation of themselves.

"The world of 'U' isn't based on any specific social network," Hosoda says of his creation. "Some people look at the scale of it and say, 'well, it's a similar scale to Facebook, you know, is it based on Facebook?' but it isn't.

"It's more a case of 'what would a truly global online community look like?' In the real world we've got countries, we have languages, we have culture gaps, and it's really difficult to create a truly global community.

"But, in the virtual space you can overcome language barriers and borders, national borders, and maybe a truly global community is possible.

"Unlike the global economy in the real world, which is dominated by Google, Apple, [and] Facebook, which is actually more of a U.S.-centric economy, this is me trying to visualize what a truly global community would look like. And that's what 'U' is."

Taking inspiration from Beauty and the Beast

As well as following Suzu/Belle on her journey of self-discovery, it also sees her come face-to-face with a user named the Dragon, who is a monstrous being that everyone refers to as a "beast".

Despite his aggressive persona, Suzu/Belle believes that there's more to him than that and she realizes she is the only person who can help him, so she tries to find out his real identity to do so.

One thing that viewers will no doubt notice is the similarity Suzu and the Dragon share with Belle and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast.

Aside from their names, the Dragon lives in a secluded castle full of roses and there is a ballroom where he and Suzu's Belle share a dance, even the character design for the Dragon will bring the Disney iteration to mind.

This, according to Hosoda, was a deliberate choice on his part because Beauty and the Beast was a story he has always wanted to pay homage to, and was actually something he also sought to do in his 2012 film Wolf Children.

"I've always love the story of Beauty and the Beast. I knew it as a child in translation on TV and in magazines and I liked how it overturns your values," the Academy Award-nominee reflected.

"And then when Disney's Beauty and the Beast came out in 1991 I started working in animation and I really wanted to be able to make something like that one day.

"Then three years ago I came up with the idea of setting a modern Beauty the Beast in the online world and that's where [Belle] started."

In Belle, Suzu's eponymous persona and the Dragon dance around his ballroom in costume as she sings to him before they float in the air and dance among the stars, which Hosoda admits was a direct nod to Disney's animated classic.

Looking back at the scene, he said: "I really think it couldn't really be a true homage to Beauty and the Beast without that. Of course in the Disney version, they don't float up into the sky!"

He added: "The reason I like the story of Beauty and the Beast is, as I said, that it overturns our values, the beast looks violent but actually he has such a kind heart. I really love the beast and the duality [of him], and the way that he changes thanks to Belle and he has the power to make us want to see him change.

"I felt that then [and] I still feel it now and there's a similarity I find between that and the internet, the fact that our real self and our online self are the same but also completely different.

"And, when we go online, we can do and say things that we can't necessarily do or say in the real world, and it's the same as the two sides of the beast."

Belle is out in theaters across the U.S. now and will be given a theatrical release in the UK on Friday, February 4.

Mamoru Hosoda poses during a photo session as part of premiere of "Belle" on December 03, 2021 in Lille, France, and a still of Belle in "Belle". The director spoke with Newsweek about creating "Belle's" virtual world "U" and taking inspiration from "Beauty and the Beast." Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images/2021 STUDIO CHIZU