Bubble is an altogether gentler anime product for Araki, aiming for the emotional stakes of films like Your Name, but is slight to the point of inconsequence.
For director Tetsurō Araki, Bubble represents something new. The director is best known for a few edgy anime series aimed at teen boys like Death Note, High School of the Dead — now most famous for a viral clip of a pair of boobs dodging a bullet-like Neo — and Attack on Titan, the politically dubious megahit that accounts for a large portion of anime’s booming popularity in the West. Unlike those sex- and violence-obsessed works, Bubble is altogether softer, gentle to the degree of hardly registering. Instead of an action thriller, it’s a romantic drama centered around a post-apocalyptic sports anime, though even the post-apocalypse of this film’s Tokyo is more friendly than usual.
Five years before the events of the film, a load of bubbles rained down from the sky, causing explosions that wreaked havoc upon Tokyo, flooding the city, collapsing its infrastructure, and sectioning it off from the rest of Japan under a huge bubble. In addition to the typical urban ruins of post-apocalypse fiction, frames are covered in bright blue bubbles and the waters feature glowing red whirlpools. The city is now home to a sport called Tokyo Battlekour, a violent 5-on-5 parkour race, the rules of which remain arcane for the entire film. Bubble’s plot concerns the star player on one of these teams, Hibiki, whose detached attitude keeps his teammates at bay and masks some simple psychological trauma. Hibiki can hear a song that no one else can emanating from a nearby tower, and nearly drowns until he is saved by a mysterious girl, who is actually a bubble come to life. She takes the name Uta, is preternaturally excellent at Battlekour, and is somehow connected to Hibiki’s past.
And that’s it, really. What you see is what you get with Bubble, a film that can’t escape its own slightness even as it reaches for grand sentiment. For all the parallels Uta sees between herself and The Little Mermaid, and for as much as the film tries to make Uta as essential to the story as Hibiki, she remains a cipher through the end. With no past and no future, just a few gibberish hints at a connection to the cosmos, Uta’s arc plays like going through the motions just to have a journey parallel to Hibiki’s. He doesn’t fare much better because, aside from his sob story connection to Tokyo’s apocalypse, his own motivations and goals are still vague. Sure, the emotional throughline sees Uta break through Hibiki’s guarded demeanor and turn him into a team player, but that has little to do with the empty spectacle of a third act that swings for the emotional climax of recent hits like Your Name but whiffs, managing only meager sentimentality in its stead.
You can currently stream Tetsurō Araki’s Bubble on Netflix.