Tokyo has been cut off from the rest of the world after bubbles from the sky break the laws of gravity there. It has effectively become a playground for youngsters orphaned by the gravity collapse. Parkour teams have even been created to lift spirits. Hibiki, a young ace at parkour who is known for his dangerous playstyle, makes a reckless move one day and plummets into the sea. Saved by the mysterious Uta, they begin to hear a voice that no one else can hear. But who is this person behind the voice? Where did Uta come from? And will the gravity in Tokyo ever return to normal again? Their meeting could lead to a revelation that can not only change their home but the world itself…
Bubble is an original movie that began airing on Netflix on April 28 2022, and in Japanese cinemas on May 13. Produced by Wit Studio (Attack on Titan, The Rolling Girls, Vinland Saga), written by Gen Urobuchi (Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Psycho-Pass) and directed by Tetsuro Araki (Attack on Titan, Death Note), Bubble is…well…a lot of things. A family movie, an action movie, a sci-fi, a modern-day fairy-tale retelling, and a little more. I have to admit that when this movie was first announced, I was incredibly skeptical. The staff behind this movie are responsible for a lot of anime franchises, and big-name ones at that. But I think more people should know that this fact alone does not necessarily mean everything they touch will turn to gold. Big-name writers and directors all collaborating together make followers curious, meaning the bar is raised significantly and expectations are that much higher. They see the people behind Attack on Titan and Madoka Magica and Death Note and want absolute perfection. So does Bubble give us this perfection the followers want?
After a bizarre explosion in Tokyo creates a gravity bubble, the city is considered off-limits and effectively cut off from the rest of the world. A choice few kids decide to break the law and move in, only to find a city half-submerged and fluctuating gravity. These parkour teams (‘Tokyo Battlekour’ as they call it in the movie) are fairly cutthroat and battle each other for ship fuel, food and supplies. This plot might as well have been an action game from the 2000s.
When our main protagonist Hibiki slips and falls into the sea, a mysterious girl jumps in to save him, but as we see straight away, she is not human in any way whatsoever. Named Uta by Hibiki, she finds out more about human culture and life onboard the team’s ship, the Reiyo. However, the more you watch the movie, the more you realize how alike it is to The Little Mermaid. In fact, if you put this plot together with the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, they are pretty much mirrored.
But as for Bubble itself, it did not win me over in first impressions. Its ’15’ rating on Netflix left me a little confused. It has neat visuals and parkour action that can keep younger viewers happy, but combining it with more heady themes and a little philosophy that the big anime analysts look for is something I’m not sure suits. As well as this, while some parts of the story are overexplained and go into more detail than is needed, others just aren’t explained very well at all. One example of this is how the tale of The Little Mermaid is narrated over and over again. Then leaving something like the one team of scary-looking parkour artists, Team Undertaker, who play a prominent role in the movie and yet aren’t explained very well at all.
And going on from that, the fact that there is not much in the way of an antagonist in the movie is something that may throw off some people. Viewers want someone to boo at, and while Team Undertaker do some mean things in ‘Tokyo Battlekour’, they are just as stuck in this Tokyo bubble as everyone else is. In fact, they look more like some emo kids with fancy technology who just need a hug than anything else. And just as soon as they appear in the movie, they almost vanish as if they were never there. But I suppose if you want to look for an ‘antagonist’ in this movie, then maybe the idea of ‘evil red bubbles’ will please you…
…that’s a spoiler/non-spoiler by the way.
This all sounds like I’m spewing out a lot of negative points, but I won’t deny that Bubble looks amazing to watch. The animation is done very well, and colors really burst out in front of you regardless of what the setting is. Considering how Tetsuro Araki is better known for giving us something as visceral as Attack on Titan, watching this really feels refreshing in comparison. And so while we can marvel at these kids performing gravity-defying parkour moves on top of half-collapsed buildings and floating rocks, there is a part of the movie that works just as well when the characters’ inner feelings and thoughts are highlighted.
I go back to my skepticism though. Urobuchi has his own reputation for writing wild and off-beat stories. Madoka Magica was a stab at the magical girl genre, while Psycho-Pass was a stab at dystopian sci-fi, even mirroring George Orwell’s 1984. And don’t get me started on his 2003 Lovecraftian game The Song of Saya, which is quite possibly the creepiest visual novel I’ve ever played. Meanwhile, Tetsuro Araki has quite the resume of his own, playing very significant roles in Attack on Titan and Death Note, along with many other big-name franchises. On top of this, Hiroyuki Sawano has been brought in for the score; the same person who scored the likes of Attack on Titan, Kill La Kill and The Seven Deadly Sins. This modern-day spin on The Little Mermaid could well have been done differently and without all the unnecessary scenes, so did a movie really need all of these big names pooled together? A hard one to answer. Given Urobuchi’s background though, his vision of the old fairytale is something I’d easily expect from him; offbeat and thought-provoking, with some added psychedelia.
There’s very little I can say about the voice acting for both the Japanese and English versions. Hibiki is played by Jun Shison, who is better known in J-drama shows, while Uta is voiced by Japanese singer-songwriter Riria. The English version meanwhile includes the likes of Zach Aguilar (Tanjiro in Demon Slayer) as Hibiki, and the relative newcomer Emi Lo (Kate in Shadows House) as Uta. As for which one I prefer, I honestly can’t decide since they are both just as decent. The English dub does not give us any really corny lines, and by not being a direct translation, all the characters are given some life, even the emo team Undertaker who only use microphones on their hands to communicate.
The opening theme is “Bubble” by Eve feat. Uta, and the ending theme is “Jaa ne, Mata ne. (See You, Catch You Later.)” by Riria. Here’s the Netflix trailer for Bubble:
If you know the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale (and not the Disney retelling), then you already know what happens to the Little Mermaid, in this case, what happens to Uta. The journey told in Bubble, both visually and metaphorically, is one that goes in all sorts of directions, with some tangents overemphasized leaving others left dragging behind. There are plenty of times when it feels like we are watching two movies at the same time. As if Urobuchi’s trademark psychological storytelling clashed with something more action-packed we’d expect to see from Araki. There will be some people who think that the two styles work together well, and just as many who think these two styles should have been kept separate.
With visually stunning movies like your name., Weathering With You and Belle becoming a kind of ‘gold standard’ when it comes to impressing anime movie watchers, Bubble ticks off plenty of boxes. But even saying that, I think this spin on a classic fairytale that ends in tragedy could have been pulled off by a more focused creative team. A team that could well have given us a less confusing ending that, despite being very cute to watch, is a little bit all over the place.
This is a visually-stunning movie and an interesting modern-day take on The Little Mermaid, but I still believe that too many cooks may have spoiled the broth for Bubble. Viewers look at what works these guys have done and want perfection, and while it has a fair amount of exciting parkour and bursting color, there are many other things that could have been added or tweaked to make it more enjoyable for everyone to watch.