Suzu is a 17-year-old high-school student. She grew up in a rural Japanese town where everyone knows everyone and their business. When Suzu was young, her mother died while trying to save a little child from drowning in a river, and since then, Suzu’s world stopped. She can’t open up to people anymore—even to her father—because she has put up walls around herself. The only person she still opens up to is her friend Hiro, who is a force of nature. Suzu is better off allowing Hiro to be her friend than trying to stop Hiro befriending her. But worst of all, Suzu has closed herself to music, the passion that she and her mother shared. In fact, Suzu thinks she’s completely done with music and singing. She still attends choir practice with the same women who used to sing with her mother, but she hides behind a column. However, when Hiro convinces her to join U, the largest online community in the world, Suzu’s reluctantly accepts, only to be blown away. Here she can be whoever she wants to be, and her past doesn’t matter.
Belle, Suzu’s avatar in U, is everything that Suzu cannot be in real life (at least according to Suzu). She’s beautiful and can sing. In fact, Belle’s singing enchants all U users when clips of her songs go viral. Belle is U’s latest sensation. Nobody knows who Belle really is—other than Hiro— so Suzu can let herself be free. There is no way people will find out her real name. Right?
Together with Belle, the Dragon is the other character attracting attention in U with people wanting to unveil him—discover his real identity. Belle doesn’t know who the Dragon really is, but there’s something painful in him, something that she recognises in herself as well. So now the hunting season is open against the Dragon—on one side, the U avatars who want to reveal the Dragon’s true self and on the other side, the people who consider the Dragon a hero. Belle needs to figure out whose side she’s on.
Throughout the story, we see Suzu slowly start to open up to her classmates: her childhood friend Shinobu, and Ruka the most popular girl in her class. One of her classmates, Kamishin, is being made fun of by other people due to his enthusiastic personality and the passion he puts into everything he does, but I believe it’s thanks to his attitude of not caring and pushing forward for his dreams that Suzu finally realises that she can be both Suzu and Belle. Her best friend Hiro instead is scary. She’s a tech wizard on a mission to find out who the Dragon is, but when the group finds out, they are horrified to learn the truth.
The novel is a re-telling of The Beauty and the Beast. Belle and the Dragon are representations with a modern twist of the two fairy tale characters. While some elements overlap with the fairy tale, the majority of the story is quite different, especially how the characters of Belle and the Dragon develop throughout the book and how they find their true selves. This retelling brings to light a problem that many adolescents face: self-confidence, linked to the digital world. People try to look pretty and be glamorous online, when in reality they are suffering. They don’t know how to react, so they hide behind a screen. Suzu is like that, until she realises that she has a group of people who love her and will always be there for her. The search for the Dragon sheds light on domestic violence, and what the system cannot do to protect children from abusive parents.
Although I enjoyed the overall plot of this novel, I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing. It’s my first book by the author Mamoru Hosoda but I watched some of his previous movies, such as The Boy and the Beast and Wolf Children, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I haven’t watched the anime of Belle, but I felt that the writing was trying to describe the movie and its visuals. While I’m more familiar with a ‘don’t tell, show’ style of writing, in the book everything is told. Every single action, thought and expression, even if mundane, is described as if Hosoda was trying to narrate the movie via words. I also felt it confusing at times because there’s back-and-forth between characters without knowing who said what. In a sense, it’s like a play, where words are accompanied by visuals to explain the location and to tie in one scene with the next one. But lacking some of the visuals, the effect didn’t come through completely. I’m also not sure if this ‘confusion’ I found was due to how the original novel is written in Japanese or due to the English translation, which uses American English vernacular.
What I appreciated in the writing is its use of the first-person singular, which allowed the reader to be closer to Suzu and experience what she goes through with her. Although the book is narrated from Suzu’s point of view, there are parts where Hosoda uses ‘you’ to speak directly to the reader, to introduce the world of U.
To give as much of a cinematographic feel as possible, Hosoda also include the lyrics of Belle’s songs in U so that the readers can also understand how the songs impacted the other avatars who listened to her music. Especially how much they impacted the Dragon, who was also a fan, albeit he didn’t want to be. He didn’t need the extra attention that Belle brought to him.
There are no illustrations in the book other than the one on the cover, but I can’t help wondering that if they were added, they might have helped more with the cinematographic feeling that Hosoda was going for.
There is a lot going on in this book, whether it’s song lyrics, thoughts or gossip, so the publisher has used different fonts to differentiate what is what, even trying to match the AI voices with a font that could represent the digital world, which in my opinion is quite successful.
Studio Chizu’s Belle is written by Mamoru Hosoda and translated by Winifred Bird. It’s published as a hardback book by Yen On, an imprint of Yen Press.
Trigger warning: domestic violence
Our review copy from Yen Press was supplied by Diamond Book Distributors UK.