The other day my partner brought me to a movie theater to watch a surprise film, which ended up being BELLE–not knowing that I had already seen the movie. I was glad to have a chance to re-watch the film in theaters though, so I definitely wasn’t disappointed. The movie holds up well on a second viewing, and I noticed a lot of little details that I hadn’t before. Something really stuck out to me in particular though that I hadn’t noticed before: Justin and Kei are the same person. Kei being the abusive father to Tomo and Chi. Or at least, the film certainly seems to hint at this being the case.
For one, the two have very similar body types. They’re both tall and muscular with chiseled jaws. The only major difference is that Justin has blonde hair and lighter skin.
When Kei barges into Tomo’s room and demands him to stop singing, he says that it’s distracting him too much from his job. Which means Kei evidently works from home, at least to some extent. Justin meanwhile has dozens of sponsorships backing his cyber-policing activities, which means that whoever controls the Justin avatar probably does so as a full-time job. So it’s plausible that Kei works as a U cyber-police for a living. The aforementioned scene also occurs as Justin is waiting for Belle to sing and lure Ryuu out into the open, so it checks out that Kei would be especially stressed about his job in that moment. (Granted, maybe it’s a stretch to think he would actually get up from his desk in such an important moment just to harass his son, but it’s plausible.)
When Kei tries to feign a punch at Suzu, a shiny silver watch is prominently displayed on his wrist. It’s similar to Justin’s unveil cannon, which is appears as a large silver device on his wrist when not activated–similar in size to a wristwatch. The scene mirrors an earlier moment in the film when Justin interrogates Belle as well. In both cases Justin/Kei grabs Belle/Suzu by the hair, and raises a fist at her. The screen-direction is reversed between the two scenes, as well as the wrist that Justin/Kei wears his device.
The one caveat to this theory is that the two characters are voiced by different actors. That doesn’t out rule the possibility though.
All of this sheds a tragically comic light to his relationship with his sons. He goes through such lengths to capture and unveil Ryuu, not knowing that he’s just chasing after his own son. And he takes this job so seriously that he harasses his sons just for being a little noisy and distracting him from it. He’s harassing his sons both online and offline. All for something that just amounts to moderating an online forum.
Even if Justin and Kei weren’t literally the same person, they’re clearly parallels to each other. Justin abuses his authority as an internet moderator, while Kei abuses his authority as a father figure. The parallel is strengthened if they’re the same person, but at the same time, I think it’s good that its not outright stated. If the film outright stated the connection, that would imply that abusive parenting correlates with abusive forum moderation, an interpretation that misses the point of what each character conveys.
All that said, this is also got me thinking about how Justin’s character is supposed to comment on the present-day internet. As I mentioned in my previous post, BELLE is strictly an allegory of the present-day internet, and not speculative fiction of what VR might look like in the future. I think the film’s depiction of internet moderation is the one point where the allegory becomes a bit unclear and muddled.
Over-moderation and censorship are huge problems on the internet today, as moderation tends to be enforced in a way that stifles creativity and freedom of expression. BELLE did good at depicting this issue, but the problem is where this issue is coming from. U has no official group of moderators, and instead is policed by a third-party organization of vigilantes. The creators of U insist that users have everything they need in the program itself, and so keep a hands-off approach to moderation.
Maybe there’s a nuance to Japanese internet moderation that I’m missing, but this is completely off-base in addressing the source of over-moderation in the real-world internet. Our internet is becoming increasingly centralized, as internet traffic being consolidated among a small number of large websites controlled by an even smaller number of corporations. Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and other companies have to make a profit and please shareholders, which often causes them to make decisions that go against the interests of their users.
Twitter and YouTube are notoriously uneven with how they enforces their policies, Facebook and Apple are notoriously strict with the type of content they allow on their platforms. Tumblr banned porn from their website in order to keep their app on the Apple iOS store, which lead to their downfall overnight–eradicating one of the largest websites for adult artists to post their content. None of these problems are due to third-party moderators.
I’m sure Mamoru Hosoda is aware of these issues, so why ignore this obvious aspect of the problem? I think it’s because Hosoda specifically wanted to make a movie that highlights the good of the internet, rather than dwell on the dystopian downsides that every other sci-fi movie focuses on. With that in mind, it makes sense that the allegory would ignore the corporate aspect of the modern internet. U is supposed to be a neutral entity, because it’s meant to represent the internet as a whole—not just the a specific website or computer program.
Over-moderation isn’t a problem with the internet itself, but a problem with specific websites. If we look at it through that angle, Justin being an independent third-party makes sense, even if it might not be readily apparent.