Singer-songwriter Kaho Nakamura renders voice for anime ‘Belle’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kaho Nakamura strikes a pose.
Belle, a popular singer in a virtual world called “U”

Kaho Nakamura has been heralded as a genius for her freewheeling, genre-defying vocal stylings that have earned the singer-songwriter a growing following since she first came to attention for her live performances while still a university student.

Now 29, she recently made her voice-acting debut in “Ryu to Sobakasu no Hime” (known internationally as ‘Belle’), portraying protagonist Suzu and her virtual avatar Belle. The animated film, directed by Mamoru Hosoda, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on July 15 and was released in theaters in Japan on July 16.

Nakamura spoke with The Yomiuri Shimbun about her motivation for the film and thoughts on music.

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As a musician, there is much to like about Nakamura’s live performances. There’s a certain comforting charm to her shows, particularly how the onstage banter flows so effortlessly, gently ushering the audience into her rich musical world. Each of the songs in her wide wheelhouse shows a different side of the artist that is hard to place squarely in conventional categorical boxes, with maybe a hint of pop here and a touch of jazz there.

Her album “Ainou” also generated considerable buzz when it was released in November 2018. A versatile performer, she can be heard performing solo, as part of a duet, and even with a band.

“When I listen to music, I don’t go like, ‘It’s jazz!’ I’m listening more to that ‘tetchi tetchi’ groove,” Nakamura explained, inventing an onomatopoeia in the process. “I listen to everything equally. I’ve never thought about genres. That’s why I only create music that I find nice.”

At music shops, her previous albums tend to get filed in the J-pop section. But there are apparently also some shops that sort her into jazz or neo-soul.

Born and raised in Kyoto Prefecture, Nakamura said she already knew as a kindergartener that she was destined for a career in the arts.

“I really loved both singing and drawing. I loved them so much that I assumed I’d become either a professional singer or a professional painter someday.”

She was 20 when she started making music in earnest.

“Writing music is similar to drawing pictures, so it came to me rather naturally,” she said, smiling. “If I’m in a good mood, I might find myself spontaneously humming and start recording, without taking it too seriously. If I listen to the recording later and think, ‘Huh, that’s a nice tune,’ then I’ll start turning it into a proper song.”

Remarkably, these hummed songs come to her not only with melodies, but also with lyrics. It seems the wellspring of musical creativity courses deep through her veins.

Nakamura was first noticed for her live performances. She appeared in nearly 150 shows during her sophomore year of university and sold about 3,000 CDs. The breadth of her activities as a performer has continued to grow ever since.

“Live performances are like school field trips. You work very hard making preparations, but once it’s underway, you just do it without thinking anything. That’s my style,” Nakamura said.

Is there anything she wants to convey through her songs?

“Basically, no,” she said by way of preface, before adding, “Whenever you start something new, you might worry that people will think you’re lame or no good. I want people to push these doubts to the sidelines and just give it a try, doing what you like. That’s how I feel whenever I’m on stage.” ​

Hosoda, the director of “Belle,” attended one of Nakamura’s concerts before she was cast for the film. Nakamura said she felt the finished film was something of an extended review that spoke to the director’s impressions of her performance.

“There’s this message of, like, how wonderful music is,” she explained. “Given the times we’re living in now, I hope that viewers will be able to leave the film feeling like they’ve been to a live concert.”

Creating Suzu

High school student Suzu, who becomes unable to sing following her mother’s death

The film opens with a line from Suzu: “kawaii” (cute, sweet).

“I wasn’t quite sure if the dialogue was directed at someone, or if she was simply uttering her emotional state out loud,” Nakamura said.

These were the sort of questions Nakamura had to consider in her voice acting debut, which entailed many long days of trial and error to feel out. During the recording process, her bathroom became a makeshift, second recording studio. She said she would bring the film home to rewatch in the bath with fresh eyes and ears, in order to more closely re-create the experience of the viewers watching in their living room. After trying out various inflections, she finally landed on the version used in the film. Listen closely during the scene to see how she handled it.

Suzu creates an online persona named Belle, who becomes a world-famous singer.

“I didn’t know where to start practicing [for the roles as a voice actor]. I ended up wearing high-heeled pumps when I recorded Belle’s part and generally tried to wear flats when I was voicing Suzu. Wearing different costumes helped me to separate the characters.”

Songs become key to the story. One scene has Belle singing to an audience of 5 billion people.

“An audience of 5,000 is the biggest I could even begin to fathom from my own experience. I have a feeling that such a big audience [in the billions] would actually make it easier to forget about everything else and just sing. I mean, when you’re in front of only two or three people, you can see their faces; it’s pretty obvious when someone is bored or eagerly awaiting for the show to wrap up.”

Virtual ‘Beauty and the Beast’

A scene from “Belle” featuring the dragon and Belle is an homage to “Beauty and the Beast”

Hosoda is known for earlier directorial bows including “Toki o Kakeru Shojo” (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), “Summer Wars,” and “Bakemono no Ko” (The Boy and the Beast). “Belle” was produced by Studio Chizu, a production company that was cofounded by Hosoda and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

The story starts with high school student Suzu, who lives with her father in Kochi Prefecture. As a child, Suzu loved singing with her mother. After losing her mother in an accident, she found herself unable to sing.

One day, Suzu comes across “U,” a virtual platform populated by more than 5 billion users the world over. In “U,” Suzu takes on another persona, which she names Belle, who becomes a cyberspace sensation for her natural singing chops.

Belle meets a brutish dragon in the “U” universe and the unlikely pair begin to take an escalating interest in each other.

Viewers might notice the many homages to “Beauty and the Beast” sprinkled throughout the film. According to Hosoda, the premise for “Belle” was dreamed up to imagine how “Beauty and the Beast” might have unfolded if it took place in cyberspace.