A Gorgeous Animated Movie That Gets Life Wrong Online

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An image of pop singer Bell floating above a digital landscape.

Picture: GKIDS

The new animated film Beautiful is a marvel. The Last of Mamoru Hosoda, Acclaimed Director of 2018 Mirai, Beautiful features skilled art direction that remains cohesive and focused even in the busiest scenes, and I loved the English soundtrack for its haunting beauty, which never strays from its Disney inspiration. This is a Beauty and the Beast digital story about Suzu, a 17-year-old girl who trusts VTube as her pop idol anonymously for the internet. While the film is very candid about how internet stardom can be a positive force in life, for Suzu, the empowerment of online anonymity is just a way to overcome her depression. It offers a misinterpretation of the Internet that does not reflect how anonymous identities often become an end in themselves. The result is a well-meaning film that misunderstands how young people actually experience their identity and emotional intimacy online.

Those who enter Beautiful understanding its fairy tale inspirations and its place in isekai lore (more on that in a bit) won’t be a surprise when the story unfolds, but I’ll discuss this story in detail, so…

Spoiler warning

Although she is shy and straightforward in her everyday life, Suzu’s internet personality Bell is confident and catches the attention of millions. While her online nickname hints that she’s not that subtle, she finds herself drawn to the cold and aloof Beast, a violent and angry internet personality who finds it hard to trust anyone. Director Mamoru Hosoda Recount Kotaku that the film is a modern version The beauty and the Beastbut the film is also part of another storytelling tradition. Beautiful is also a isekai, a genre of Japanese fiction in which a character travels to an alternate world. Recognizable examples include Sword Art Online, Re:Zer0and even Inuyasha. In isekai featuring female characters, the heroine usually returns to her “real” home at the end of her journey of growth and self-discovery in another realm.

Protagonist Suzu is no exception. At the very end of the movie, she can only really connect with the Beast when she gets rid of her pink-haired persona, implying that her dazzling online incarnation wasn’t really authentic, wasn’t really she. Neither the Beast nor Suzu’s friends could accept the globally popular celebrity she’s become in the online world as her “true” self. This moment of losing her digital persona is presented as honest, vulnerable, and a turning point. As a result, Beautiful portrays the abandoned online persona as a superficial construct that lacks humanity. That’s when the film’s plot fell apart for me, though its stunning visuals and music carried the rest.

At that point, the film says that our offline identities are authentic in a way that our online personas never could. It’s an idea that irritates me. The film had inadvertently downplayed the sometimes very real, sometimes life-saving internet relationships that can form between complete strangers, and placed the supposed authenticity of the offline experience on a pedestal. In one scene, Suzu discovers proof that Beast had sung Bell’s songs while offline. I wish he could have accepted her just because her kindness healed him, not because she finally told him who she was in “the real world”.

Bell holds Beast on night background.

Picture: GKIDS

I felt rather discouraged by the end of the film, as it seems to deny the basis on which so many queer teenagers have found meaningful existences on the internet. Especially when the internet gives us a place to express our genders more freely, our online lives become more revealing of ourselves than the people we are in our “real” lives. Suzu “grows up” by overcoming her depression and participating more actively in her “real” life, where she is safe and accepted for who she really is. Beautiful is a movie about Suzu finding a version of herself who could smile; it’s a film about a fairly conventional childhood, about someone who can easily exist in a society built for cisgender and heterosexual individuals. But for me, having grown up as a non-binary kid in the Republican South, there was no safe childhood to return to when I logged off every night. And even young people who aren’t gay can have experiences online that are just as real and revealing of their true identity as anything in their lives offline. It’s not okay BeautifulThe plot so casually negates the value of our anonymous online personas.

The film didn’t just fail to reflect my experience; he claimed that my relationships with faceless strangers made less sense than “real” people who didn’t know me at all. I have formed some of my best friendships on the internet. When I broke my phone screen in college, a complete stranger sent me money to fix it. People I met on anime forums gave me advice on college admissions and law school. When same-sex marriage wasn’t yet legal in my home country, I told strangers about my fictional crushes. I had an online life that was so much more vibrant and interesting than all the art awards on my shelf or the student honor certificates on my wall. I was constantly fighting for my life in a country that wanted me gone. While I was online I got to get a taste of who I could to be, in those corners of the Internet that weren’t at war with me.

Of course, I didn’t use my real name. I traded aliases like seasonal outfits. I could be a scientific term in the morning, and I could be a color in the afternoon. My name meant “serene” in the winters and “melancholy” in the sweltering summers. I could be a sound, a texture or an architectural style. I was a solid, a liquid and a gas. All of these words would describe me better than the person I was offline: a child locked away in one of the most evangelical places in America. If a “Beast” appeared in my life and asked me to throw it all away, then I would tell him to continue on his merry way. He didn’t deserve the version of me that was tormented and small. Nobody needs to show that side of themselves to another, even if that’s the life they’re forced to live most of the time.

At the start of the film, Suzu is completely disinvested in her own school life, and I saw myself in her misfortune. But in the end, she returns home to her father as the happy girl the movie (and society) wants her to be. He sees the problem as being with her, not with the world she lives in. The pop star character is presented as an exciting opportunity for socialite Suzu, but it’s ultimately just a way to cure her depression, a way to practice her inner strength. before presenting it to the offline world. The mask itself has no intrinsic value. And that’s when I realized that the film was primarily aimed at a cisgender and heterosexual audience. It was not the movie for me.

Beautiful is a forward-thinking film in the way it depicts the internet as both nurturing and dangerous, but its logic is still stuck in the web age of “don’t talk to strangers” and the misconception that our online experiences are somehow not “real life.” In our current age of Vtubing, fans aren’t pressuring their favorite digital celebrities to come out on top. It is understood that they are meaningful and important to their fans and probably their creators, even if they never take the mask off.

The film clearly understands that our little made-up Internet identities are good. I just wish he could have followed along and valued Bell as much as he valued Suzu.

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