Is Bubble a Flop? – This Week in Anime

Wit Studio‘s new anime film Bubble boasts big names like Tetsuro Araki, Gen Urobuchi, Takeshi Obata, and Hiroyuki Sawano, but does the appeal of this blockbuster sci-fi romance deflate upon further inspection?

This film is streaming on Netflix

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.


Steve

Wow, Jean-Karlo, I didn’t know the Uzumaki anime dropped already! I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get sucked into some freaky-ass spirals.

Jean-Karlo

Uh uh, I am not having more of that nightmarish “this hole is mine!” business this time. I’m keeping all that quarantined… right there.

Bubble has… a pedigree, suffice to say. Gen Urobuchi being involved with the script is enough to raise an eyebrow, given that anything he works on is at least interesting. The character designs from Takeshi Obata is… well, people sure did like Death Note back in the day?

And we’ve got the master of in-your-face direction Tetsuro Araki at the helm, plus the audible-from-orbit musical stylings of Hiroyuki Sawano. To the extent that you can sell an anime to a global audience based solely on the notoriety of its staff, Bubble is about as close as you can get to a perfect storm of name recognition.

And they sure keep things simple enough to not turn general audiences away! What we have is another supernatural-themed teenage romance! Y’know, besides Call Me By Your Name and the works of Makoto Shinkai, we almost never get any of those.
Lol yeah, it’s really not hiding its influences nor its blockbuster ambitions, but hey, I’m not one to instinctively turn my nose up at an original anime film! Especially not at one from Wit Studio, who have been thriving with almost perceptible joy since being unshackled from the Titans, nor at one that features as fun a concept as parkour hooligans tearing up post-apocalyptic Tokyo.


The parkour angle is definitely a highlight, but we got to set the stage first.

So, five years ago Tokyo found itself inundated with weird bubbles raining down from the sky. Eventually, there was an explosion at Tokyo Tower and a giant Bubble formed around the city, leaving it as a no-man’s-land. Nevertheless, a gaggle of youths regularly sneak their way into the ruined city to live a life free from society’s rules.



And while the parents are away (or dead from bubbles) the kids will play. Play parkour, that is, and they do it via a semi-officially organized set of contests, using food and supplies as collateral in a winners-take-all race for glory. It’s not really explained how these competitions got started or how the teams arose, but it’s all basically an excuse for lots of dynamic action scenes utilizing all three dimensions, and that’s good enough for me.



Like, you can tell these are from animators who got a lot of practice with this kind of free-wheeling limbs-splayed acrobatics on Attack on Titan, and it pays off here. These scenes are a treat.
For sure! The parkour segments are all amazing show stoppers, combining amazing 2D animation for the characters flipping and leaping and 3D animation to track their lovely post-apocalyptic ruin-playgrounds. The constant changing angles and shots could’ve been utterly disorienting if they hadn’t been done right, but they nailed it for sure.


It’s a great setting for it too. I love me some urban decay. You show me a picture of cracked concrete with a little leaf sticking out of it, and I’m in heaven.





This is how you do ruined cities right. After sitting through FREAKANGELS, it’s pleasant to see this setting done in such a lovely way, and stunning to see it pulled off so effortlessly.

Anyway, while you might think there’s some kind of political strife between the various “Battlekour” teams (of which there are at least 3), we only really focus on one: the Blue Blazes. The various teams of teenagers living a free life reminds me of Urobuchi’s writing in Kamen Rider Gaim and its many Beat Rider teams. With more time, it would’ve been fascinating to see more pushing and shoving between them. But I guess that just wasn’t the point of the movie, and I can deal.

We should also note, at this point, that Urobuchi is one of three credited screenwriters (alongside Renji Ōki and Naoko Satō), so for as much as his name was ballyhooed about in the promotional material, I suspect this is more of an Aldnoah.Zero situation where he wasn’t the main creative voice. I’d argue it was probably Naoko Satō, who also wrote Gravity Rush, since Bubble similarly deals with gravitational shenanigans. And the dead giveaway is that the body count isn’t nearly high enough for Urobuchi.
Things get weird enough to live up to Urobuchi’s weird standards, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Anyway, Hibiki here is the only one on Team Blue Blaze with the dexterity to incorporate the free-floating bubbles still dotting Tokyo in his parkour paths. He’s bristly and appears to suffer from some kind of extreme auditory sensitivity that forces him to wear headphones, but the team still loves him plenty.


Opposite him is Uta, a mysterious girl who saves his life and joins the team alongside him. Oh, also she’s feral, dresses like a VTuber, and is made of bubbles.


Uta is spawned when one of the bubbles (which is apparently sentient) sees him almost drowning after an accident during a midnight parkour stroll, and literally gestates itself into a humanoid form to save his life.







Also, her body was taken from the poster of an in-universe supernatural teenage romance film, so these movies really are starting to blend with each other. Cheeky bit of self-deprecation, or commentary on the industry? I’ll leave that to you.
Granted, she doesn’t copy the poster perfectly, which is why she ends up with the asymmetrical look. With that uniform, she should be streaming unarchived karaoke and honing a weird speech tic on YouTube. Not a diss, by the way! VTubers are great, even if Hibiki seems visibly embarrassed to have been saved by one.



I only just realized that Uta mis-interpreted the outfit, so the jacket wrapped around her waist turned into a weird gappy outer-skirt. I like that!

Speaking of VTubers, Makoto strikes me as the kind of woman who would become a VTuber irl. She’s a scientist in her late 20s investigating the bubbles while also kinda-sorta acting as a beer-drinking caretaker. I feel like I’ve met a bunch of people like her in college and she strikes me as exactly the kind of mousy personality who’d VTube on a lark and make a decent living of it.


There really isn’t much else to say about the other members of Blue Blazes, not all of them even get names! There’s Shin, an old parkour expert who lost his leg in an accident. He actually has a prosthetic, so kudos for disabled representation. But this is Hibiki and Uta’s show primarily, featuring America’s newest heartthrob Makoto.


It’s sad. As perfect as she is, Makoto is sidelined to the point where she primarily serves a functional role in the narrative. She’s there to look at a computer and tell us what the line graphs are saying about the bubbles, and she’s there to introduce the story’s thematic lynchpin. You might have heard of it.




No singing crabs here, mind you. Closest we’ve got is this guy.

Bubble plays the “Little Mermaid” connection on-the-nose enough to feel just the right kind of melodramatic. Any more, and you’re at Violet Evergarden territory. Any less, and there’s not enough tear-jerking. Uta being a Bubble-girl means that so much as laying a finger on Hibiki causes her to start dissolving into foam. So as much as she likes being around him, they can’t ever touch.



Nevertheless, they do eventually form a genuine romantic connection through their mutual appreciation of belly shirts.


They fall in love in this really nice synchronized parkour sequence set to the leitmotif to the film. Hibiki was the only one who could hear the bubbles’ echoing song, but Uta can not only hear it but sing it, and it plays while they romp over the ruins of Tokyo. For real, it’s a fantastic “falling in love” sequence.


The synchronized diving moves are a little much, but if you’re writing a teen romance, I don’t think you should have a fear of appearing silly. So it does absolutely work here.



But bubbles and butterflies aside, I think the most genuinely affecting scene of the film is Hibiki’s recollection of his childhood to Uta.


As an Autistic person who has been in and out of diagnostic batteries, I appreciate the sequence of Hibiki being tested for his auditory hypersensitivity. Stuff like the entire bloody world being just too loud hits home in a good way.



His auditory sensitivity also connects him to the bubbles: before the explosion at Tokyo Tower, only he heard the song of the bubbles. He was whisked away by some strange thing or other and has spent the rest of his life seeking out the source of that music.



It also turns out he was at ground zero of the big Bubble explosion around Tokyo Tower, and Uta’s the only reason he survived it, so surprise surprise, both our protagonists play a big role in the First Bubble Impact.




Incidentally, I have photo evidence of standing there too when I visited Tokyo in 2019. Didn’t see any sentient soap bubbles though, so our world remains safe. For now.


Trouble comes in from new sources. First, Makoto discovers that the Bubble activity is starting to amp up in a way it only had five years ago before the explosion at Tokyo Tower. Second, she gets kidnapped by a Battlekour team, Undertaker.

It turns out, Undertaker has been going outside of the Bubble and streaming the Battlekour matches as some kind of weird death-game. The sponsorship deals Undertaker has gained gives them better training and tech, making them one of the best and most-cut-throat teams in Ruined Tokyo—and they’re challenging Blue Blaze in a match with Makoto as the prize.






The guy in the horse costume puzzles me. That’s not just one guy in a horse costume—he has a friend in there with him. Just… why.

Maybe this is just the Battlekour equivalent of soccer hooligans. Too much alcohol involved to try to reason with.

Speaking of alcohol involved, don’t worry, Makoto makes it out okay.

Makoto does—Uta doesn’t. I should care, but y’know. Makoto.

Uta and Hibiki need to pull off a stunt to win the match, but Hibiki has to grab Uta’s arm for it—costing her the arm. And what’s more, the bubbles are starting to act up in Tokyo even further.






Which leads to the third act, which is where the film’s faults become most noticeable. Because even if this is ostensibly a romance, there’s really not much chemistry between Hibiki and Uta. Uta in particular just isn’t much of a character—she’s literally feral when we meet her, and she doesn’t develop much of a personality outside glomming onto Hibiki.

With the unrequited love of The Little Mermaid already loudly telegraphing the film’s own arc, it’s kinda hard to care about the two of them being torn apart, no matter how much the film dials up the color and saturation.






It doesn’t help that the plot starts to overcomplicate itself. So, it turns out that more than a sentient Bubble, Uta is an alien sentient Bubble, and she has a sister of sorts who resides within Tokyo Tower and resents Uta for… some reason. So Uta decides she has to return to the other bubbles to prevent the rest of Japan getting flooded.


Not only that, Bubble tries to tie all this into a grander thematic statement about the cyclical and unified nature of the universe—all well and good, but it comes across as half-cooked. Like, the spiral symbolism feels tacked on, and the visuals never look psychedelic enough to truly melt your mind. Bubble here really feels like a poor man’s Children of the Sea. Just showing me a picture of the Milky Way isn’t good enough. At the very least, I need an uninterrupted 5-minute scene depicting the creation and evolution of life as told through an incomprehensible slurry of psycho-erotic animation.
They really try to put in some kind of attempt at pacifism and meaningful resonance to the story, but you’re right, it never feels earned. There’s an attempt at foreshadowing earlier with Makoto teaching Uta about spirals and patterns of creation and destruction, but it all rings hollow. Honestly, the movie would’ve been better without it. It’s okay to just be a supernatural teen romance with a tragic ending.




It also just wastes valuable time that could have been dedicated to more important things like sick parkour stunts or Makoto getting drunk.

And by no means would I suggest the film remove these lines of dialogue, but it is very funny to hear these characters speak all these dire, apocalyptic sentences about bubbles, the things you blow out of a plastic wand in order to make toddlers laugh.

We get our tragic end: much like how the Little Mermaid turned to seafoam, Uta dissolves into bubbles and all anyone can do is watch and be sad while the narration waxes philosophic about the human nature.






Man, I wish I found this more affecting. I love the original story of The Little Mermaid! I saw the statue in Copenhagen. And the anime version from the ’70s is, as far as I can remember, the very first anime thing I ever saw. I probably wouldn’t be writing this here with you if I hadn’t watched that on a VHS in my grandmother’s living room when I was like 4 or 5. Bubble is just too thin around the edges, too easily popped.

The melodrama, I love. The flashy visuals meant to tie into deep sentimentality, I live for. But earn your emotion, earn your melodramatic ending. Don’t scream at me to be sad over a scene, make an actually sad scene. The movie would’ve been better served without Uta having some weird alien twin rival, doubly so without its forced attempt at a message.

Provided: Bubble is still really effective and it overall works. I think the people that still well up thinking about Haku and Chihiro will get a lot out of this movie. Bubble is nowhere near as good as Weathering With You, and it’s even farther off from Ride Your Wave (which I hold as the best example of these kinds of movies). But it makes a good also-ran if you’re in the mood for this kind of film.

And hey, worst comes to worst, you can just watch it for ❤️ Makoto ❤️


Trueeee that. And I think that’s a good way of putting it overall (esp. the nod to the excellent Ride Your Wave). Definitely not a bad film, and an okay notch added to the genre. But given the promise and pedigree, I believe we could have gotten something a lot better than just okay.



Guess I’ll just have to wait for the sequel for Uta to rematerialize as the internet’s number one funny anime girl streamer.

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