Netflix's Anime Movie 'Bubble' Invents a New Kind of Post-Apocalypse
Director Tetsurō Araki explains blending 'The Little Mermaid' with gravity-defying parkour to create the gorgeous new anime.
It’s a tale as old as time: a boy meets and falls in love with a sentient bubble that dresses like an idol. Technically, anyway—the new Netflix original anime Bubble, out April 28, riffs on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale The Little Mermaid for inspiration in its wild coming-of-age, tragic romance story between the introverted teenager Hibiki and the mysterious Uta, a girl made of bubbles who emerges from the water and joins him on a journey of introspection (and parkour).
Set in a Tokyo where most of the city resides underwater following a mysterious ecological disaster, it’s now the domain of adolescents with a freerunning obsession, taking part in rooftop-bound games of capture the flag before going back to their shared home on an abandoned Japanese coast guard ship. Further still, the whole city is covered in weird magic bubbles left over from that apocalyptic event, some of which are harmless enough for Hibiki to use for his leaping between buildings, others more dangerous, causing wild gravitational anomalies, but all admired in one way or another. With Bubble, director Tetsurō Araki, probably best known for his work on Attack on Titan and Death Note, envisions a very different kind of post-apocalypse than we've seen before, one defined by vivid color and a kind of fleeting beauty in how the characters relish in the quiet and stillness of the abandoned city before heading to frontflip off of a building.
The Tokyo in Bubble feels different, both gentler and more psychedelic, than the harsher environs of Attack on Titan and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, but also perhaps more in tune with reality in its confrontation of the busyness of city life—the film frequently flashes back from its quieter present to a time where the city is stiflingly, overwhelmingly noisy and crowded, reflecting both on what was lost as well as the peace Hibiki and the others have found in this new emptiness. In a conversation over Zoom, director Araki attributes it to "my own taste, because I tend to see beauty in desolate areas, or derelict, or devastated, ruined areas. However, I wanted the dystopian landscape to actually present itself as a utopia, and I also wanted to bring forth the impact of showing you a landscape that we are so accustomed to seeing, but in a different condition. I wanted to bring the impact from that dissonance."
The imagery of a flooded Tokyo, of course, brings to mind anxiety about climate change, though the specificity of bubbles themselves—apart from being mentioned as a key part of Andersen’s Little Mermaid, as the eponymous character is fated to turn into sea foam if she fails to uphold her pact with a witch—comes from a slightly more poetic place as something to "capture this sense of this ephemeral nature of something that won't last," Araki says, "because, of course, we're telling a love story here."
With that homage, Bubble joins a club of anime films about rising sea levels and mysterious mermaid girls new to the ways of the world, such as in Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo or Masaaki Yuasa's Lu Over The Wall. Though, in this version, humanity's tendencies involve a lot of gravity-defying parkour. Araki arrived at this story not just because of that classical coming-of-age, boy-meets-girl setup, but also because of the sadness inherent in the tale. “We incorporated the motif from The Little Mermaid into this one because we wanted this kind of tinge of sadness, and that is what The Little Mermaid is about.”
Bubble could be accused of trying too hard to differentiate itself from such attempts with its flashy modernization of the story, but that’s just in keeping with the Araki of it all. The movement feels like callbacks to the acrobatics of his earlier work, like the scene that opens the feature—as Hibiki leaps across buildings surrounded by strange floating bubbles, the virtual camera chases him through the environment while Hiroyuki Sawano’s intense score comes to life. "The parkour elements that you see in the film, it's not a first for us. We've infused parkour elements in, for example, Attack on Titan and projects like Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, and it just so happens that I really think it's the physical action that comes with parkour. It's just beautiful to see, and with Bubble, we just decided to bring that front and center and give you an evolved version of what we had done up to this point."
The story is split between meditative moments of stillness and isolation as well as this escapist form of movement—though the latter is excitingly choreographed, the former feels just as in theme with the characters’ desires to be away from duty, away from modern life. With all the complex design of the action and the incorporation of metaphysicality alongside the complicated movements of free-running, there were of course some complicated sequences to construct.
"The most difficult one was a very important scene that we include in the middle part of the film, which is where we have Uta and Hibiki kind of doing this dance together on the rooftop of a building," Araki says. "In the screenplay, it is only written that they dance together, and there's not much detail. But we tried to arrive at, ultimately, this duet dancing parkour. And it is a scene where you can see their emotions and their feelings, where their hearts are coming together. When I saw the completed sequence, I felt very confident that this was going to be, indeed, a very good film."