Leave Bubble floating out into orbit where no one else has to see it

Bubble released on Netflix this month, and it was on my “to-watch” list as soon as I caught a glimpse of it. It is one of the most visually striking anime movies ever made, but I’m afraid to say that it also holds the title as one of the worst anime movies I have seen for quite some time.

Let’s talk about that. I’ll try and keep this as short as possible (Spoiler: she didn’t – Ed.) since the movie itself doesn’t have enough going for it to justify wasting words on it, nor do I want to spend any further time thinking about it ever again.

Another Guilty Crown case

Does anyone else remember the pre-release hype that surrounded Guilty Crown? The hype that proved itself to be completely undeserved when we saw the final product, which was beyond flawed with its bad writing, lacking story, and shallow characters?

It sure did look pretty, though. This was due to a stellar team working on the product, with massive names that made it highly likely that it was going to be amazing, at least from a technical perspective.

It’s a shame to say the same exact thing has happened with Bubble. The names behind its production made this movie look absolutely sure to hit it out of the ballpark with its sheer potential.

We have Wit Studio (Attack on Titan, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, Spy x Family) on animation duty, Gen Urobuchi (Madoka Magica, Saya no Uta, Fate/Zero) on script, Takeshi Obata (Death Note, Bakuman, Hikaru no Go) on character design, Tetsuro Araki (Attack on Titan, Death Note, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress) directing, Hiroyuki Sawano (Kill la Kill, Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, Aldnoah Zero) composing, Masafumi Mima (Perfect Blue, Attack on Titan, Fullmetal Alchemist) in charge of sound direction and Eve (Jujutsu Kaisen, Dororo, Josee to Tora to Sakana-tachi) performing the theme song.

A stellar line-up, right? And one that certainly brought the vision of Bubble to eye-pleasing fruition, but unfortunately, it’s all for naught.

The barebones plotline is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi setting. An inexplicable phenomenon has caused bubbles to fall from the sky and create a dome over Tokyo. Government officials forbade anyone from going near it, but of course, a few youngsters find this unusual environment not only fascinating, but also ideal for parkour. It’s become commonplace to make trades for daily necessities by winning races across this unique terrain.

Our main character, Hibiki, is the best at it. He’s skilled at making contact with the floating bubbles and using them for quick, swift movement during races. Despite the racing typically being team-based, he sticks to himself as he suffers from hyperacusis — the phenomenon where everyday sounds appear much too loud, obtrusive and uncomfortable to deal with.

One day, he hears a soft singing voice coming from Tokyo Tower, and he nearly dies trying to ascend it and reach the mysterious figure at the top. He is, however, saved by a kiss from a young girl formed of bubbles.

Bubble

From thereon, the two bond as the girl, given the name Uta after her song, learns what it means to live and love as a human — and Hibiki learns to embrace who he truly is. That’s the intent, anyway; unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as nuanced and poignant as it sounds.

All modern anime movies need to be is pretty

Bubble is all style and no substance. The story clearly never expects viewers to question the worldbuilding, despite there being barely any explanation to the fascinating premise. Instead, the little information we do get is vaguely and poorly restated to us through scientist character Makoto, whose sole purpose in the movie appears to be to act as a quasi-narrator and feed us loose titbits of information.

Despite her being a scientist, she makes no effort to explore the strange situation in further detail. What are the bubbles? Why do they surround Tokyo? She certainly doesn’t seem to care all that much. In fact, none of the intrigue in the movie’s premise is ever explained, and Makoto becomes pretty much nothing more than an object of affection to a supporting character, an excuse for a few frames of fanservice, and eventually a damsel in distress to force the plot to limp along. And that’s just one character’s worth of complaints.

The rival parkour team The Undertakers cause a mid-point dramatic conflict, but they may as well not have been in the story at all as their subsequent turnaround is illogical. These guys were ready and willing to kill off the entire main group, the Blue Blazes, in a water-based black hole — then they suddenly felt bad about it and offered their equipment to our heroes for the final encounter. It was unrewarding, made zero sense, and encapsulates the entire Bubble experience neatly. Why is all of this happening, and why should we care?

The movie could have been made more intriguing by placing supporting adult character Shin in the lead role; this would have made it feel more original instead of yet another edgy, antisocial teenager in the leading role. The movie even hints at some mysteriously relevant events occurring in Shin’s past, but promptly seems to forget all about this, relegating him to a side character with a minor backstory. Talk about a letdown.

Bubble

Bubble’s main characters are badly written. Hibiki is unbearably one-note, and is just another example of the tired anime movie archetype where a silent, stoic and attractive main boy pairs up with an innocent, socially curious “alien” girl. Both of them lack depth; their motivations are never shown or mentioned, meaning most viewers are likely to feel somewhat disconnected from them.

Worse, they only appear to bond during the action-focused parkour scenes; there’s little to no development in their dialogue and moments of human drama, which makes the whole story feel shallow, uninspired and unappealing.

The movie is trying to sell us a romance that subverts The Little Mermaid’s tale, and it awkwardly fumbles and fails while attempting to do so. The end result is an underwhelming climax where brilliant core messages can be heard loud and clear, but when the emotions just aren’t there to go along with the messages, it’s hard to care after these two main characters have barely connected with one another over the course of an hour.

There’s no growth, no journey, and certainly no chemistry; the movie assumes that “fate” is a good enough explanation for everything. There’s no sense of depth or exploration to any of it — it’s not so much a case of it failing to “show, not tell” as it is there simply not being enough to be “told” in the first place. It’s an empty husk in an attractive shell.

Lacking any kind of depth

The story feels like it progresses in segments rather than through a united and understandable overarching plot. It feels disjointed and confused. I already took issue with Belle for its imperfect storyline, but at least it tried. Bubble instead focused so much on making its music and pretty visuals its stand-out aspects that it failed to match these elements with a solid story.

Even the music is a massive letdown, though. It’s easily the weakest work we’ve heard from Sawano’s for some time — possibly ever — and the repetition of Uta’s lullaby tune throughout the movie quickly becomes tiresome from how overused it is. It also doesn’t help that this one sound makes Hibiki gets over his disability at the pop of a bubble. Nothing feels earned, and it makes for a very frustrating watch.

Despite how little happens in the story, the movie still manages to trip over presenting its main themes clearly and concisely. The side theme of “found family” was barely visible as the movie tried to juggle so many other aspects, making it feel like an afterthought never expanded on.

Uta spends most of her time reading literature — she obtains a book about The Little Mermaid from Makoto — and not learning about her world from others. Makoto could have easily acted as something of a mother figure to emphasise the “found family” aspect, but no.

Then we have Hibiki and his team being thrown together for a climax that is particularly underwhelming, since we’ve barely had the chance to get to know the majority of them over the course of the movie’s runtime.

The worst bits of Bubble feel like they come down to the writing, which is surprising for a writer with as strong a track record as Urobuchi. Bubble’s narrative leaves so much to be desired and fails to read anything like his prior classics. It’s possible that the poor quality of the story resulted from Urobuchi collaborating with two newcomers on the script — Naoko Sato and Renji Ōki — but there’s no sense in pointing fingers. It is what it is, and what it is is disappointing and shallow.

My least favourite moment? How Hibiki gifts a shell to Uta, who keeps it on her until the climax, at which point Hibiki takes possession of it once more. I was expecting an emotional gutpunch with something like her lullaby always being contained in this precious shell, reiterating the point of how important her voice was to Hibiki, as it was the only thing to soothe and comfort him. But nope. Nothing like that happens. What a wasted opportunity.

The few things I did like

Let’s be fair though. I can respect the core messages in Bubble. Some of the seemingly missed opportunities in the story wouldn’t have made sense with those in mind. Bubble was intended to be another story that validates our existence, that tells us that we are all connected in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. It shows us that humanity can be united — and this will never be a bad message to have at the heart of a creative work.

Bubble

The dialogue stirred me emotionally on a couple of occasions. It acknowledges that the main character does not really know who he is until he meets Uta. His silent and stoic nature was, of course, not who he really was, nor who he wanted to present himself as. It reinforces his seemingly clichéd archetype as something a little more interesting, and that was enough to make me accept him as the main character. It was a little more nuanced than the usual gloomy teen lead.

And, of course, we can’t understate the impressive visuals: on top of the stunning conventional animation, the subtly used CGI during the parkour scenes is a delight for the eyes. It plays out like someone was tracking the characters’ movements in each and every frame, making the animation especially impressive and dynamic.

Watch any other anime movie over this

In conclusion, that’s all the positive things I have to say about Bubble.

The plot is uninspiring and tiresome, the characters are the shallowest of any original anime movie I have ever seen, and the movie prizes itself solely on how it looks. All it has got going for it is its obviously gorgeous animation, and that’s nowhere near reason enough to make this a recommended watch.

In fact, if you’re curious, just check out some clips of the great animation seeing during its parkour and other scenes that make heavy use of the soundtrack — that’s all you really need to take in what Bubble has to offer. You’ve saved time and watched the only good bits of it, and then you can go do something much more productive with your time.

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Lilia Hellal
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