In an urban environment, we spend most of our time outdoors in some kind of lane. Sidewalks, roads, bridges, pathways through a park, the walkway besides a river, and so on. These lanes restrict our movement by nature. You can only move in two directions: back and forth. They don’t feel restrictive though, because these lanes are all part of an interconnected system that (theoretically) can take us anywhere we want. But what if we actually could move in any direction we wanted outside? Not just on the ground, but mid-air as well for true three-dimensional movement?
The virtual-reality of U in BELLE (竜とそばかすの姫) allows its users to do just that. The virtual world is not restricted to gravity, so you can move in any direction you want. There is also no need for transportation and housing, which would necessitate the orderly flow of traffic through lanes.
The visual vocabulary of the movie revolves around this fundamental difference in how people move in these spaces. The 2D animated segments of the real world emphasize the use of lanes in outdoor enviroments, while the 3D animated segments emphasize the unrestrictive movement of the virtual world.
Just about every outdoor scene in the film involves a lane of some kind.
In the majority of shots, the lane is either parallel or perpendicular with the picture plane. We either see the characters move to the left and right, or towards and away from the camera.
Many of the scenes are drawn to look like they were shot with a telephoto lens. This flattens the scene and makes the background look much closer than it actually is. These add yet more contrast between the flat 2D animated segments and the expansive 3D animated segments.
In this example, Chikami steps onto the lane so that the camera can maintain its flat composition. It almost feels like we’re watching a stage play.
The lanes that we traverse in real life are tied to the architecture and urban planning of our surroundings. Architecture and urban planning are, in turn, bound by gravity. As such, the architecture of U reflects a world that has no gravity, and has no need for lanes.
The architecture of U is often abstract and otherworldly, and defy gravity. Such as the rows of buildings without a clear top or bottom, or the giant sphere of Belle’s concert.
Some of the architecture is more realistic, such as Ryuu’s castle. Unlike the enclosed spaces of the real world though, the rooms of Ryuu’s castle are large and open-ended, with multiple directions that Belle can move in.
What the lanes mean on a thematic level changes from scene to scene. Sometimes the lanes feel restrictive and claustrophobic. Other times, the lanes feel like a path towards a brighter future.
In this scene when Shinobu asserts that Suzu is Belle, we don’t see a the lane, but it’s implied. The characters can still only move in two directions over the cross-walk. And the cross-walk is blocked by another lane, the road.
There’s also no visible lane when Suzu begs her mom not to go into the river. We see the characters from the side though, so it still feels like they’re moving on a lane.
The raging river is basically a lane too. Some of the most tense scenes take place when two lanes are intersecting with each other. (e.g. the lane of the river, and the metaphorical lane Suzu and her mom walk on.)
One possible exception to this rule is when Suzu is asked to take a photo with her classmates. She steps out of a lane and into an open area.
…but even in this scene, we’re shown another flat telephoto-like composition. Suzu feels like she’s trapped between all her classmates without any breathing room.
When Suzu gets in contact with Ryuu and his brother online, the audience only gets to see the brothers through Suzu’s perspective: through the single, stationary perspective of Ryuu’s webcam. The stationery perspective makes the audience feel just as helpless and physically-detached from the situation as Suzu. We want to see the scene play out from multiple angles, just as how a scene like this would normally be shot, but we can’t.
In U, the camera movement is three-dimensional. In the real world, the camera movement is two-dimensional. For scenes taking place on a computer monitor–the traditional internet, camera movement is one-dimensional.
When Suzu is searching for Ryuu, she goes through a maze of lanes. Lots and lots of intersecting lanes in the most tense moment of the movie.
Even the climatic offkai between Belle and Ryuu takes place in a lane.
The final scene of the movie. Notice how all the characters are in front or behind each other, as if they’re all walking through a narrow lane.
BELLE might not be the first show to use 2D and 3D animation to contrast the real world with a virtual reality. The French animated series Code Lyoko did exactly that nearly twenty years ago. It’s certainly among the most interesting and emotionally-moving shows to use this approach however.
U is an allegory for the internet as it exists today. It’s not a hard sci-fi take on how a technology like this would work, or the ramifications it would have on society. That’s why everything else about the film’s setting is exactly the same as present-day Japan. There are no holograms, hoverboards, or flashy futuristic technology.
Instead of looking towards the future, BELLE invites us to reflect on the current state of the internet, how it affects us, and how it differs from our real-world experiences. The internet allows us to connect to others from all over the world, but ultimately it’s no substitute for real-world connections. The internet allows us to wear any mask we want, but that’s no substitute for being proud and confident in who you really are. The internet is not a substitute these things, but it can still guide us towards stronger connections and better confidence in ourselves.