Like its namesake, the Netflix film Bubble is as beautiful as it is brief, with a deceptively complex story to boot. But bubbles aren’t just beautiful for Hibiki, a freerunner living in the bubble-infested and partially sunken remnants of Tokyo, they’re where all his troubles began. Hibiki’s high-flying journey of self-discovery is crafted by writer Gen Urobuchi (Madoka Magica), designed by Takeshi Obata (Death Note, Platinum End), and brought to life by director Tetsuro Araki (Attack on Titan). The three creative giants synthesize their distinct artistic perspectives into a thrilling and unexpectedly heartfelt retelling of, believe it or not, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
Unlike the entirety of the trio’s famous works, Bubble is decidedly appropriate for all ages. Kids will marvel at the gorgeous visuals and thrilling parkour races while big-brain-anime-enjoyers will appreciate its heady themes and also marvel at the gorgeous visuals. The action centers around Hibiki and his teammates from the Blue Blaze, a group of parkour athletes scampering across the rooftops of Tokyo’s submerged skyscrapers in high-stakes games of capture the flag. The parkour is a visual feast with its astounding single-shot sequences and wonderfully fluid animation, but the film truly soars when Hibiki nearly drowns. He’s rescued by a mysterious woman who was a bubble moments before her big moment.
Araki is obviously aware that the bubble-this and bubble-that will be a hard sell for the adults at home, so as if to prepare us for the insanity that is a bubble turning into a human, he opens the movie with a slow, painterly study of a bubble in all of its translucent, colorful beauty. His camera pushes through the surface’s complex sheen to reveal a universe’s worth of whorling galaxies, stars, and finally our Earth. This is all to say that these aren’t your average bubbles.
We soon learn that the world was suddenly and inexplicably covered with bubbles, causing all sorts of scientific quandaries and societal chaos. One bubble in particular set off a cataclysmic explosion in Hibiki’s face, ravaging Tokyo and leading to its designation as a no-man’s land. The fact that much of the rest of the world was spared Tokyo’s fate invites an interesting cast of characters to live in the post-apocalyptic city mostly by choice. With its miniature black holes, gravitational anomalies, and no laws to live by, the post-bubble world of Tokyo makes for an exciting backdrop not just for parkour, but for Hibiki’s budding love story with his bubble-turned-crush.
While it doesn’t take long for the parallels to the Little Mermaid to become apparent, Gen Urobochi’s script fully embraces the fairy tale by recounting it for both Uta and the audience at home. It’s less lip-service and more prescriptive for Uta’s everything-is-brand-new perspective on her newfound existence. She takes the beats and characters from the story and rightly applies them to her situation, even labeling Hibiki as her prince from the story. But we know, and Uta knows, that the Little Mermaid doesn’t have a happily ever after. The mermaid cannot remain in the human world and inevitably returns to seafoam.
Speaking of inevitable, for those choosing between subs and dubs, both vocal casts are fantastic, though I would lean toward recommending the English-language version. The visuals are so eye-catching that I missed a few subtitles when watching the Japanese version first. Maybe it was my second-time around, but with more of my focus on the visual storytelling, I was delighted to realize that a number of seemingly insignificant moments, like the title of an open book, foreshadowed and informed later events. I was also free to appreciate the subtly important but ever-present color scheme that subtly pits blue against red at every possible moment.
Ultimately a lesser creative team might have kept the focus on the stunning visuals and video game-like exuberance of the parkour battles to lead to a triumphant conclusion. Bubble tries its best to forecast that it won’t be like all the other anime, but its first act will certainly be a hard sell for folks unfamiliar with the creative minds helming the project. But with enough curiosity, or perhaps appreciation of its jaw-dropping splendor, this movie will endlessly reward you for sticking with it. Like many things in life, Bubble is hard to make sense of, but unquestionably beautiful.
Bubble is available to stream on Netflix now.