Photo/Illutration Suzu, the protagonist of "Belle" (Provided by Toho Co.)

Leading anime director Mamoru Hosoda returns to his roots in "Belle," his first animated feature film in three years, which tackles online bullying as one of its themes.

Set in a vast online virtual world, which he also portrayed in "Summer Wars" (2009), the story was inspired by Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), an animation that Hosoda credits for keeping him from quitting the industry in his early days.

"The internet has undergone a great change since 'Summer Wars,' and it is now synonymous with defamation," Hosoda said.

"I incorporated such malicious intent in the movie, but I want to view the internet as something positive by showing people's solidarity in which they are connected with each other no matter how far apart they are to help someone they don't even know."

The story centers around Suzu, a 17-year-old high school girl living in rural Kochi Prefecture, who loved singing but lost the will to do it anymore after losing her mother in an accident when she was little.

In "U," a virtual world with 5 billion members, Suzu realizes that she can sing again without any effort and instantly gains worldwide popularity as a singing sensation called Belle.

As Belle, the dispirited Suzu begins to open her heart.

But the virtual world becomes increasingly filled with aggressive emotions, leading to a barrage of hateful posts online against a mysterious being known as the Dragon and a heated search for his alter ego in real life. 

Crossing paths with the Dragon, who is rampaging through U, Belle can't help but notice his emotional scars and makes the big decision to help save him.

Hosoda himself faced a rough reception when he entered the anime business and said it was watching "Beauty and the Beast" that came to his rescue.

"After I joined Toei Animation Co., I was thinking, 'Maybe I should quit,' because of the extremely harsh working conditions, and that was when I saw the film," Hosoda recalled. "I was so impressed and made up my mind to work hard in the anime industry if I could make something like that someday."

The anime proved lucky for Hosoda in other ways more recently.

When Hosoda paid a courtesy call on Glen Keane, a famed animator who worked on the Disney movie, he also met Jin Kim, responsible for designing characters for "Frozen" (2013) and other works and seized the opportunity to ask him to design Belle.

"When I asked him to incorporate characteristics that Belle shares with Suzu, he turned (Suzu's) freckles into patterns on (Belle's) cheeks," the director said. "This design embodies the internet songstress with a global presence."

"Belle," which was screened as part of the 74th Cannes International Film Festival's new Cannes Premieres section on July 15, received a standing ovation that lasted for at least 10 minutes. It is currently showing nationwide.

(This article was compiled from reports by Atsushi Ohara and Misuzu Sato.)