Despite boasting an interesting concept, anime giant Tetsuro Araki’s first original feature plays it a little too safe.
Tetsuro Araki is probably one of the most influential Japanese animators of the last ten years. Starting his career at Madhouse and working on popular series like Death Note, it was his work as director at WIT Studio on the Attack on Titan franchise that propelled his name into the mainstream. The visuals that blended 2D and CG animation also helped to put the studio on the map of anime fans around the world, affording them (and Araki) the financing needed to work on their own original series that helped to refine this visual style.
Fast forward to 2022 with a healthy dose of financing from global streaming giant Netflix to produce original series and movies, Araki now has the opportunity to direct his first original movie project. Bubble is a sci-fi parkour anime set in a post-apocalyptic alternate-era Tokyo loosely based around Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, filled with enough high-pace action set-pieces to play directly into the studio’s strengths. As a testament to how important this first-ever original anime movie is for Netflix, the world premiere at the Berlinale is the first time the streamer has allowed any of their anime to screen at such an event prior to its release on the service.
It’s a surprising inclusion, as for all this is a major original anime from WIT Studio with involvement from major players working in anime today like Hiroyuki Sawano, Gen Urobuchi and Takeshi Obata, the film offers nothing that justify its place at such a prestigious film festival.
Five years ago, bubbles of unknown origin fell from the sky in Tokyo. Before long, the city was flooded and encased inside a giant bubble that distorted the gravity of the city encased within its walls. Now a flooded cityscape reclaimed by nature, groups of orphaned teenagers take part in ‘Tokyo Battlekour’, a 5v5 parkour racing event where teams battle one another for supplies like food and beer. One day, after falling while trying to climb the ruins of Tokyo Tower to investigate a mysterious voice, he’s saved by a bubble that transforms into the young girl Uta. Their budding romance threatens the stability of Tokyo and the entire world.
Bubble’s issues lie in its chronic lack of originality. The movie feels like a pick-and-mix of ideas executed better elsewhere; you have the musical needle-drops of a Makoto Shinkai film, special hydraulic parkour boots that function identically to the mobility gear from Attack on Titan, and a third act pieced together entirely from plot points found elsewhere. Any subtlety to the film’s romance between Uta and Hibiki is rendered moot by the explicit naming and repeated textual references to Andersen’s story. Even secondary characters like the retired mentor scientist Shin and hot-headed best friend Kai are archetypical to a fault, with character arcs you can telegraph merely by looking at them.