Spoiler warning: this film gives away the ending of The Little Mermaid. Not the Disney film, but the rather different ending of the Hans Christian Andersen version of the story. The reason for said spoiling is because — among the heady cosmological concepts, post-apocalyptic parkour races, teenage anime angst and energetic music — the dramatic question at the heart of all this hullabaloo is how far Bubble will adhere to, or diverge from, The Little Mermaid’s fate as Andersen told it.
The setting to bring these disparate elements together is an interesting and visually stunning one. After a mysterious rain of bubbles appeared around the world, they converged on Tokyo Tower, triggering a local catastrophe that left Tokyo flooded and subsequently abandoned. The city is a crumbling ruin, but it’s a lush and vibrant ruin, awash in light and colour as nature overtakes urban development. Gravitational quirks remain after the bubble incident, resulting in floating rubble and blue bubbles that serenely float around the city. Danger lurks also, with swirling gravity traps appearing in the water and the air and the frozen red starburst cloud wedged half-way up Tokyo Tower looming ominously in the background. The whole area is encased in a bubble dome, like a prettier version of the devastating hemisphere that engulfed Neo-Tokyo in Akira. While it hasn’t been demolished, the Tokyo of Bubble is severely damaged and between this film and Weathering With You, moisture based phenomena causing havoc for Tokyo could be rising up to take the place of Godzilla and the nuclear fear the big lizard embodies as a more pressing threat in the minds of Japan.
An empty city begs to be explored, and this decaying metropolis has been turned into a parkour playground. It’s a perfect match. Bubble centres around parkour crew The Blue Blazes as they train and compete with other teams in races known as “battlekour”, the rules of which are outlined in some unsubtle exposition as the movie’s first race is run. This team of five are solid performers, but the star is Hibiki (Jun Shison), an aloof chap whose special connection with the drifting bubbles enables him to create routes through the urban jungle gym with ease. He also sports a pair of headphones to muffle sound, which aggravates his hypersensitive hearing. The Blue Blazes are supported by older former freerunner Shin (Mamoru Miyano) and team mum/scientist Makoto (Alice Hirose) who is inside the zone to study the effects of the bubble outbreak.
Joining the team part-way into the story is a mysterious girl with purple eyes, who saves Hibiki from a watery fate while he’s off on a solo escapade. Uta (voiced by the pop singer known as Riria.) is welcomed into the group remarkably quickly, despite her odd attire and the fact she initially doesn’t speak. Before long she’s scarfing down meals with the rest of the team, taking to parkour like a dolphin to the ocean waves, and developing her special connection with Hibiki. You see, Uta is this story’s Little Mermaid. This is not a metaphor. Uta picks the book off a shelf, Makoto reads it to her, and over the days Uta comes to identify herself with The Little Mermaid and even refer to Hibiki as the prince.
This whole fairy tale retelling is as blunt as the handle of an axe, but provides something to grab onto as the story threatens to spiral out of control. Despite a hefty helping of sci-fi waffle, where Uta comes from, and who or what she is, never really becomes clear, so the race towards a resolution feels flat even if the characters are acting in desperation. Just remember she’s a Little Mermaid analogue, and the will they/won’t they tension between her and Hibiki is preserved.
While the story might be too scattershot to land, the audio-visual experience Bubble creates is well worth the time. With many parallels to video games, it packs a lot of that medium’s strengths into an animated feature film.
The film begins with a simple melodic phrase. (This musical snippet, in tempo and the specific sound being used, will spark memories for anyone who has played the cartoon-style video game The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.) Hibiki can hear this ethereal melody emanating from the Tokyo Tower and once she’s on the scene, Uta can as well. This musical fragment is repeated so often it brings back memories of the CD skipping, but this overuse has a payoff when a discordant version is introduced later on, all the more jarring for the pleasant original being so familiar by that point. The two ostinatos then go to war in the climax. When this motif is expanded upon by Uta singing, or picked up and woven into Hiroyuki Sawano’s score, it helps unify the film’s soundscape.
The other standout element of Bubble is the realisation of the parkour sequences. The platform game is a genre mainstay in video games, with player guided characters traversing environments with incredible agility, even if the animation lacked the finesse to convey this in detail during the early days. Without the need to frame the action from an angle that makes player control comprehensible, an animated film can capture this freedom of movement to thrilling effect. In Bubble, the camera spins, swoops and dives to extraordinary degrees, showing off the exaggerated, yet recognisable moves the characters are pulling off. (Director Tetsuro Araki helmed Attack on Titan, which also had kinetic action courtesy of its grapple-swinging gimmick, but Bubble is far friendlier than that grim fantasy setting, with a mere scratch to the face the most severe moment.) Parkour purists will say there should be no extraneous tricking like spins and flips getting in the way of maximum movement efficiency and it is true such moves make no sense to perform in a race. Also true is that these people can jump and fall superhuman distances, although gravity-bending provides a partial excuse for such feats. But this is anime and it looks freaking amazing! Usagi (Sayaka Senbongi), the youngest member of The Blue Blazes, looks like the title character from Naruto and this is surely deliberate. The movement and traversal scenes in Bubble are a scaled back ninja fantasy, allowed the budget to be as detailed as the duels from Sword of the Stranger.
Combining such fluidly animated sequences with the strong musical work results in a kind of multi-sensory celebration of the art — and the joy — of movement. All the action is excellent, but the highlight is Uta’s first race as a Blue Blazes team member. Her and Hibiki running in tandem, bounding and swinging around the verdant urban ruins, as the weather matches the mood and the soundtrack heightens the important character moments woven into the action — that’s the scene I rewatched ten times over.
Given the cosmological overview the film returns to multiple times, the centrality of Uta and Hibiki’s musical perception, and the significance the story gives to shapes like circles and spirals, it feels like Bubble is trying to tap into the ancient metaphysical principle of the musica universalis, or music of the universe.
That’s a lot to take from a wildly eclectic anime film about teenage freerunners. It might be reaching, but Bubble sure feels like it’s reaching for something transcendent, although it gets muddled in the presentation. The human desire for connection and understanding is an old longing across cultures and this re-imagined fairy tale plays to that longing as well as it does primarily thanks to the well-executed appeal of it’s audio and visuals.