Bubble (2022) by Tetsuro Araki

Mysterious bubbles descend on Tokyo, destroying the city and leaving it mostly submerged under water. Years later, the survivors have formed into teams who compete in parkour competitions for scarce resources. Hibiki (Jun Shison) is a member of the Blue Blaze team, fighting against the Red Lobsters, Denki Ninjas, and the dangerous technologically-advanced Undertaker group. The Blue Blaze squad live on a ship with Makoto (Alice Hirose), a scientist who is researching the strange bubbles that are still present and that have led to odd permutations in gravity. Hibiki, a solitary figure, finds companionship in the shape of Uta (Riria), one of the bubbles who comes to life in a modern take on The Little Mermaid folk tale.

There is a lot to like in “Bubble”, drawing as it does on various popular tropes and ideas from anime, fantasy and folk tales. The central story, a post-apocalyptic group of survivors provides an interesting backdrop to the romantic Little Mermaid-esque tale of Uta and Hibiki’s relationship. The film’s philosophical underpinnings reference both environmentalism, in the shape of the flooded city and vast cosmological ideas such as the inevitable desctruction and potential rebirth of the universe. The animation and artwork are exceptional, with detailed depictions of the sunken city and colourful, opalescent light shows with stars and bubbles creating a psychedelic experience. The action is top-class with a focus on parkour being a great way to show the CG-enhanced environments. The story is underexplained, perhaps relying on audience famliarity with both the romanctic and post-apocalyptic genre, with the characters also falling into easily recognizable stereotypes. No real explanation is given for the bubbles, or Uta’s apperance, and there is little character development outside of Hibiki, whose struggle with over-sensitivity to noise (his name meaning “sound” or “echo”, alongside Uta’s “Song”), is an emotional angle to the loner protagonist archetype. However, what the film does do well is in creating a moving, energetic, thought-provoking experience; not always logical, but alwasy engaging. The score by Hiroyuki Sawano complements the heart-pounding action and quiet contemplation of the film.

“Bubble” features the sunken cities of 2009’s “Shangri-la” and the frenetic, death-defying action of “Attack on Titan”, the vibrancy and detail of Makoto Shinkai, and the magical fairytale dreamscapes of Mamoru Hosoda, but brings it all together in a unique package. It may be slightly lacking in a strong central motivation for the characters, but the visual spectacle means that it is easy to ignore this lack of depth and simply marvel at the colourful animation and emotionally chaged romance. In a final summing up, the film reaches for some sort of message for humanity, settling on a traditional moral characterised in the saying “Fall seven times, get up eight,” in suggesting that loss can be overcome and people will always rebuild from destruction. This life-death cycle could have been worked in to the story earlier, and more sense made of the bubbles, which are window-dressing for the most part, but overall the film succeeds in being a magical experience.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) by Mamoru Hosoda

Makoto (Riisa Naka) is a high-school student who is often late and a little disorganized. She spends her free time hanging out with her friends Kosuke (Mitsutaka Itakura) and Chiaki (Takuya Ishida), a recent transfer student. After slipping on something in the science laboratory, Makoto finds herself with the ability to travel back through time. Able to rectify mistakes, or simply avoid difficult situations, she enjoys trying out her newfound powers. After speaking with her aunt Kazuko (Sachie Hara), Makoto begins to wonder if she should be using this ability for something more important. As well as helping out fellow students, by setting them up on dates, she also wonders about her own relationship with her friend Chiaki.

“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” is based on a 1960’s serialized novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui that has been adapted a number of times through the decades. This film version is directed by Mamoru Hosoda, with a screenplay by Satoko Okudera. Makoto is a fantastic heroine, a tomboyish figure who encapsulates a teenage energy, whether irritated by her sister eating her pudding, or confused by her own feelings for Chiaki. Her peculiarities help her feel like a real character, as opposed to a simple archetype. The animation is expressive and action-packed, including small moments of movement that capture a sense of realism. Also impressive are the background details, particularly in the crowd scenes of the town or Makoto’s school that give the feel of a lived-in world. This also makes the scenes when time is frozen later in the film more powerful, with a sudden realization that everything has stopped. Seeing birds hanging in the air, or ball games locked in time is surprisingly effective in comparison with the lively scenes that precede it. The story is relatively straightforward as a high-school romantic comedy, but does include a few twists with the inclusion of time-travel. There are moments that are best not to consider too deeply, as with many paradoxes thrown up by the notion of time-travel, but they work within the fantasy nature of the film.

In the latter half of the film the story takes on a more contemplative aspect, with time itself becoming a central figure, one which warps and changes the world. We learn that Chiaki is from a future where a particular painting no longer exists, and he also makes reference to there being far more people in the present world than the future. A slightly worrying statement that is not expanded on. We also see two moments when characters who would have died are given a second chance through time-travel. “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” shows off the fun ‘what if’, but also brings us back to a consideration of what it means to be unable to return to former situations or change time (a reality Makoto must finally return to). We must learn to live with our mistakes, to seize the moment when it comes to romantic relationships, or friendships, in short to live without do-overs. The film ends on a bittersweet note that underlines the fact that it is about more than the comedy and romance, that it has a real message for the audience of grasping the present and setting yourself hopefully towards the future.

Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2020) by Kyohei Ishiguro

Yui Sakura (Someguro Ichikawa), known familiarly as ‘Cherry’, is a quiet, thoughtful young high-schooler, working part time at a day care centre for the elderly, and spending his free time compiling haiku. Yuki (Hana Sugisaki), known online as ‘Smile’, is an outgoing social media influencer who has taken to wearing a face mask to avoid revealing the braces straightening her buck teeth. The two bump into each other at the mall and soon form a strong friendship despite their differences. Yuki agrees to help Yui find a record for one of the old people at the care centre, Mr. Fujiyama (Koichi Yamadera).

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” treads familiar ground as a feel good teen drama, with strong visuals, and simple, brightly-coloured art, giving it a dazzling quality that instantly captures the imagination, creating an upbeat, enjoyable, summer atmosphere in keeping with the characters and setting. The character and world design all utilise a simplicity of style with recognizable characteristics, this stereotyping further emphasised by the use of nicknames for many of the main characters, including ‘Cherry’, ‘Smile’, ‘Japan’ and ‘Tough Boy’. The story too is pared back to its most basic elements, essentially a youthful summer love story twinned with Mr. Fujiyama’s search for the missing record and his own forgotten romance. With an upbeat pop soundtrack and colourful animation the film is a perfect watch to lift your spirits.

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” creates a tension between the traditional poetry form of haikus and the ultra-modern elements embodied by Yuki, such as an obsession with mobile phones, social media and celebrity. The film brings haiku to a contemporary world, showing the power of words and poetry. The “beauty through simplicity” of haikus is an ethos that aptly describes the film itself. The story, the visuals, the animation, are powerful precisely because of their simplicity. Examples of this include the moments where we see Yui and Yuki in split screen, drawing our attention to their similarities and differences. Yui wears headphones to avoid having to engage with the world, while Yuki wears a face mask avoid the attention of the world. It is these moments that make the film such an enjoyable watch; what appears on the surface a straightforward story, on second glance has so many elements just below the surface. It is possible, just as with a haiku, to find genuine beauty in this simple romantic tale.

Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (2007) by Hideaki Anno

The earth is under attack from giant extra-terrestrial beings known as Angels. The only hope for humanity is the secretive organisation NERV who have created huge robots known as Evas to counter these assailants. The robots require a pilot and so Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata), son of NERV commander Gendo Ikari (Fumihiko Tachiki), is conscripted to command the second of the Evas (the prototype being piloted by a mysterious girl named Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara)). Shinji is soon thrown into a battle that he does not want to fight, aided by Colonel Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi), and urged on by his school friends, Toji (Tomokazu Seki) and Kensuke (Tetsuya Iwanaga).

This feature film brings together the story of the opening episodes of the popular and influential 90’s anime television series “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, being the beginning of a “Rebuild of Evangelion” project. The film includes new scenes and improved visuals, utilising computer aided artwork to create beautifully detailed animation. The scale of the Evas is emphasised as they rise up from the underground base to stand alongside skyscrapers, or dwarf forests and powerlines. One scene shows the empty shell casings crushing cars as they fall from hundreds of feet. The film features a fresh soundtrack by Shiro Sagisu, who also worked on the series, that moves with the shifting tones of the drama; classical piano pieces, comedic sitcom-esque tunes for the scenes at Katsuragi’s apartment, and triumphant battle music when Shinji is fighting to save the world. The story benefits from being brought together in this way, making it easier to follow the numerous plot threads and see ideas develop without being divided into smaller episodes. Director Hideaki Anno has said that this is an attempt to present the story as he intended it to be. Although there is a lot going on, not only the vast city-sized duels between the Angels and Evas, but also complex interpersonal struggles, the film does a good job of keeping everything moving. “Evangelion 1.0” manages to create an absolutely believable world and introduce us to several concepts (Angels, Evas, LCL fluid, New Tokyo-3) naturally through the dialogue. We are brought into the story in media res and though there are numerous things that are inexplicable at first, it helps to establish a sense that these characters and events are real, that we are simply along for the ride. Only occasionally the film will slip into exposition, but largely the audience is credited with being able to keep up with what is happening. Things move from frenetic action during the battle scenes to more sombre moments as characters come to terms with what is happening in their lives.

The film is packed with mysteries that give it a forward momentum. No sooner have we got our heads around one concept, something else appears. This continues until the film’s final moment which comes completely out of the blue and provides a great hook for the future films in the series.

The strength of “Evangelion” is in its fantastic characters, who are relatable through their foibles. Shinji displays many anxieties and fears that are relatable, such as an unwillingness to put himself into danger and feelings of inadequacy. His relationship with his absentee father, who calls him back only because he needs him as a pilot is tough to watch, but creates a strong sense of empathy for him as we will him to find happiness. The character of Katsuragi, a hard-working and hard-drinking employee of NERV, is endlessly entertaining, both an incredible military commander, but also with a sense of fun. “Evangelion”, as the name perhaps implies, is a series that leans heavily on biblical allegory and references to Christian theology. The struggle of humanity against the angels can be seen as a struggle to liberate people from a dangerous ideology, or in a Nietzschean sense to exceed their current limitations. Characters not only face an external enemy, but an internal one and there is an argument that these may be one and the same. The appearance of Angel 4 at the time Shinji arrives on the scene suggests that the angel’s behaviour is in some way linked to that of the protagonists. “Evangelion” is a series that has so much to enjoy, whether it is the giant mech battles, the emotional and psychological complexity of the characters, or the philosophical ideas concerning the future of mankind. An absolute must-see for fans of thought-provoking science-fiction and beautifully scripted stories.

Whisper of the Heart (1995) by Yoshifumi Kondo

Childhood romance blossoms in this light-hearted Ghibli film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo. Bookish schoolgirl Shizuku (Yoko Honna) is intrigued when she discovers the same name on a number of library cards. She decides to find out who the mysterious Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi) is and is surprised to learn that he is at the same school as her. Their fledgling romance appears doomed to be short-lived however when Seiji reveals his plans to travel abroad to become a violin maker.

Based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, with a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, “Whisper of the Heart” differs from the more fantastical Ghibli films in having an entirely real world, non-magical setting. It excels in bringing the studio’s incredible artistry to urban city streets, creating a wonderful sense of place, with extreme care taken in depicting the quotidian details of schools and apartments. From the opening panoramic shots of the city to the final credits where we see cars and people passing, incredible efforts have been taken to create a believable world with all its peculiarities. This sense of capturing reality rather than creating it is heightened by the humble direction, that never feels as if it showing off the incredible work of the background artists, but allows you to notice the small things as the action unfolds. The movie is largely set around a real-world location in Tama city, which is depicted beautifully in the animation, including the hills and mix of buildings and greenery that typify this kind of residential area.

Shizuku’s family apartment with piles of books and papers and all the great confusion of life packed in there helps to completely transport you. Likewise, the way shadows play over characters, or the reflection in train windows, each moment is packed with many subtle yet startling details that help build a tangible and enrapturing drama. Shizuku is a likeable protagonist, as with many Ghibli heroines she is defined by curiosity and passion, with her first charming romance being the perfect subject for a young audience. The pace can be sedate at times, with Shizuku’s story having few twists, instead it revolves around a number of ‘moments’ that manage to beautifully capture the feelings of the protagonists without ever stating them explicitly. Surprisingly perhaps for a children’s film there is much more subtext than story. Some of the best moments involve the antique shop owner, Shiro (Keiji Kobayashi), as he shows her an old grandfather clock, and the statuette of an elegantly dressed cat known as Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. The film will spend time over these quaint moments, allowing us to truly feel a sense of wonder at things that might otherwise go unobserved. This does mean that is a film that will be appreciated more by those who spend time considering these scenes and their meanings, as opposed to expecting to be guided through a generic romance plot.

“Whisper of the Heart” deals with themes of personal growth and sundered love. Precious gems buried deep under rock is used as an analogy for individuals discovering their particular talents or uncovering what is most meaningful to them. The first love experienced by the youthful protagonist is beautifully depicted in its faltering, unsure nature, the uncertainty twinned with an indescribable happiness. The poignancy of Shiro’s story about his own unrequited love, separated many years prior, is one of the most touching moments of the film. The film can also be seen as a commentary on the power of art, song, sculpture and the written word. Shizuku’s love of books, and Seiji’s love of music, along with Shiro’s passion for restoring antiques all speak to the important connections they feel with these things, that represent some eternal emotion of humanity: love. A subtle yet powerful love-story that speaks to deeper emotions of human connection and kinship.