New Anime Film Belle Seeks to 'Break Gender Stereotypes'
The depiction of female characters in anime has often been considered problematic, but director Mamoru Hosoda is trying to change this in his new movie Belle.
"I feel that women characters in Japanese anime are often depicted through a lens of desire leading to their sexual exploitation, and too much is brushed off as a freedom of expression," Hosoda told The Washington Post in a recent interview.
The director further discussed how Japanese animation has heavily influenced the perception of women and girls and what it means to be powerful and beautiful, but not in a positive way. "Such exploitation [has been] . . . justified with the notion that it’s happening in a fantasy world, and not in reality. But I feel that, surely, such perceptions are connected and will influence our reality," he stated.
Belle is a retelling of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. The story follows Suzu, a shy 17-year-old who is self-conscious about her looks and unmotivated to play music after her mother dies. However, after joining the virtual world known as "U," she takes on the persona of Belle, an enchanting pop star with flowing pink hair, and quickly gains an immense following.
Hosoda described how his 5-year-old daughter inspired the film and its message about using the power of technology as a tool for female empowerment and a force for good. "She is still in preschool and is quite introverted, so I imagined how she was going to survive once she gets on social media and begins having all sorts of online interactions," the director explained.
“For the younger generation, the norm will be to live in both worlds and that both worlds are their realities,” he continued. “And the Internet plays a huge role for them to raise their voice and go out into the world.”
Recently, Hosoda has stirred controversy in the anime industry by criticizing how other directors portray female characters in their works. While some have questioned if his characters are actually different from those he condemns, others have praised the director's efforts. Professor Akiko Sugawa from Yokohama National University credits Hosoda as one of the individuals working to challenge Japanese culture's devaluation of women and girls. "Anime has the power to create and break gender stereotypes," the professor stated.
While projects like Belle are a strong step forward for the anime industry, according to Professor Sugawa, there is still much room for improvement, and that the industry needs to recognize more diverse voices. "There are now more positive portrayals of LGBTQ characters, issues and works that pose questions about societal problems. And with the rise of more diverse directors and anime decision-makers, there’s hope for more change to come," she explained.
Belle is expected to premiere in US theaters sometime this winter.