This must be one of those bubble economies I’ve heard so much about.
What They Say:
In an abandoned Tokyo overrun by bubbles and gravitational abnormalities, one gifted young man has a fateful meeting with a mysterious girl.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Bubble is a film that premiered internationally on Netflix in April 2022, not to be confused with The Bubble, an unrelated and very different film that premiered internationally on Netflix in April 2022. Brand confusion aside, Bubble is a film that has had my attention since its announcement purely because of its staff. This is something that happens to me regularly, and I’m almost always disappointed, but it’s still impossible for me to ignore such a lineup. Even if it’s a disaster or just forgettable, it’s worth seeing how the careers of these highly talented creatives progress, especially if I only have to invest 100 minutes in it.
I’ve been reviewing the “final season” of Attack on Titan (which will be at least three seasons before it’s done), and I’ve been impressed with the new team behind it, even when its production isn’t always as polished as it should be. But there was something about that original Attack on Titan team that just can’t be matched, so now that we can no longer have them on the series that showcased the finest work of everyone involved, it’s more important than ever to see what they’re doing instead. Wit Studio has had a few projects since then, but iconic director Tetsurou Araki, also responsible for transforming the dialogue-heavy Death Note into an exhilarating cinematic anime despite a rushed latter arc, has kept us waiting three years for new content.
This original anime film, the first standalone film of Araki’s career, sees the main Attack on Titan team reunite. Araki is back at the helm at Wit Studio with Hiroyuki Sawano returning to provide his unmistakable musical trademarks. This is of course not the first time these three have reunited since starting Attack on Titan; the excruciating gap between the first two seasons gave us another “original” anime, the bizarre self-ripoff Kabaneri, and the inclusion of so many common elements was obviously not a coincidence given the content. Let’s not forget that this dream team didn’t originate with Attack on Titan but with yet another original anime that ended a year before it began, the 2011-2012 noitaminA series Guilty Crown. Sure, technically it wasn’t Wit Studio, but it was the final work of Production I.G’s substudio that would split off to become Wit two months after its conclusion, the latter’s first official project appropriately reuniting the same key staff to create the bridge in Wit’s transition.
While Araki’s original series brought on one or both of the writers of Code Geass, this film does offer a new partnership by putting the even more notable Gen Urobuchi on writing duty. A decade ago, Gen Urobuchi was the hottest name in anime, certainly for a writer, but since then, he hasn’t lived up to the weight his name once carried. Still, the idea of “an original film from the team behind Attack on Titan and the writer of Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and Psycho-Pass” sounds like a pretty intriguing prospect, even in 2022.
While Urobuchi is the odd man out no matter how you look at it, it’s really more of a reunion of figures from throughout Araki’s career. The character designs come from original Death Note manga artist Takeshi Obata, giving them an extremely recognizable look that persists as strongly in animation as for the Death Note anime. While the three Japanese leads are live-action actors, as is often the case for high-budget standalone films (yes, this happens on the Japanese side too), the supporting cast consists entirely of the stars of Araki’s filmography thus far.
Mamoru Miyano was the main character of Death Note and Kurozuka, a co-star of the first episode of Highschool of the Dead, and the main antagonist of Kabaneri. Yuuki Kaji was the main character of Guilty Crown and Attack on Titan (yes, they even had the same lead seiyuu) and a major supporting character in Kabaneri. Sayaka Senbogi was the female lead of Kabaneri. Tasuku Hatanaka was the main character of Kabaneri. Marina Inoue was the female lead of Highschool of the Dead and one of the main trio of Attack on Titan.
Araki and his team at Wit brought Attack on Titan to life with a dynamic animation style that he hasn’t been able to let go of in these past nine years. Kabaneri’s ODM gear replacement was even more steampunk but the characters basically moved exactly the same – it looked like a shot-for-shot remake at times, even when it completely ignored the laws of gravity. It almost feels like a joke to say that for Araki’s next project, he’d just drop the pretense and make a movie about parkour where gravity isn’t a constant, but that’s exactly what happened. They don’t even give it some special name – these rebellious kids’ answer to an apocalypse is literally just to challenge each other to entirely too serious parkour tournaments at ground zero, where the gravity is conveniently distorted enough to allow for some extra cool movements. And hey, it does look great and allows Araki to show off how he and this studio are still masters at depicting this kind of motion. At this point, Sawano’s music is so inexorably tied to these sequences that you could mute the film and still basically hear the score.
It sounds silly, and it is. That’s not necessarily a problem. Araki took actions as mundane as writing names in a notebook and eating potato chips and made them theatrical climaxes. But that worked because it was self-aware. It knew how ridiculous it was, and it reveled in it, laughing with you but achieving its goal so well that you couldn’t help but think, “You know, maybe striking a pen on paper is actually the coolest thing in the world.” Here, it feels like the film is taking its premise as seriously as the characters, and we’re left with the acknowledgment that this is perhaps not the most compelling subject matter for a high-profile original post-apocalyptic science fiction anime film.
Hibiki isn’t the most likable protagonist, but the focus on hearing ultrasensitivity as a serious illness is a nice touch. When Uta appears, she strikes a dramatic dichotomy with his character but not always for the better. As someone not used to a human body, she mainly embodies feral girl tropes and doesn’t speak, until she suddenly knows how to speak almost fluently. Along with the supporting cast finding her childlike qualities endearing even though she destroys a lot of their limited resources, her main appeal points, particularly to Hibiki, are the beauty of her otherworldly design and especially her singing voice. The film does something that Wit’s original (also music-centric) series from last year Vivy often did: it focuses on closeups that add a very specific type and level of art detail that can’t feasibly be animated for any significant number of frames. It’s a gorgeous, appropriately eerie technique that highlights Obata’s art and drives home what Uta looks like in Hibiki’s eyes.
Eventually the film simply decides to be “The Little Mermaid” in no uncertain terms. It’s a somewhat jarring move, but given the other largely incongruous elements that form the film, a bubble-themed film ending up with a major “Little Mermaid” influence might not be that much of a reach. It does remind me a lot of Belle, although this stays closer to the original fairy tale while Belle leans more toward Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for inspiration and homage. In both cases, the classic story isn’t necessarily the most fitting framework for the other ideas these new works want to explore, and its presence ends up causing a precarious balance. Ponyo is by far my least favorite Miyazaki film, but it felt like a more appropriate execution of “The Little Mermaid” because it feels like that was the foundation and he added other concepts on top of it, while Bubble and to some extent Belle (which is still a fine film overall) feel like they could’ve been complete stories without trying to make them adhere to story beats that virtually everyone in the world is familiar with on some level.
Bubble is the latest anime from a dream team of all-star staff. But like Guilty Crown and Kabaneri, like most of Gen Urobuchi’s anime work after Psycho-Pass, it fails to live up to the sum of its parts and ends up not bad but highly disappointing given its potential. It’s a beautiful production with a directorial flair we’ve been missing for three years and an excellent score to back it. However, Urobuchi’s attempt to combine post-apocalyptic Tokyo, bubbles, gravity distortions, parkour, and “The Little Mermaid” into an original hour-and-a-half story doesn’t yield a cohesive enough narrative. After this much time, the saddest thing is seeing Araki’s ambitious new production end up so forgettable.
Streamed By: Netflix