Hibiki was born with a condition called hyperacusis – an audio ultra-sensitivity in which he can hear sounds normally impossible for humans to hear, while the “normal” environmental noise most people take for granted is painfully loud. Forced to wear noise-cancelling headphones and eventually confined to a centre for people with the same condition, Hibiki is cut off from the rest of the world. One day, while he and his fellow sufferers are visiting the Tokyo Tower, a strange event occurs: vast numbers of bubbles start falling from the sky. Hibiki doesn’t know it, but this phenomenon – dubbed the “bubble fall” – is occurring all over the world. However, a mysterious explosion focused on the Tower causes all the bubbles to concentrate in Tokyo, with the effect that a vast, porous membrane encases the city. Five years later, and the area is a deserted, semi-submerged shell of its former self, the flooding the result of many of the bubbles bursting and filling the streets of Tokyo with a cataclysmic deluge. The only inhabitants are a community of squatters, most of them orphans whose parents were killed in the disasters that followed in the “bubble fall’s” wake; moreover, the gravitational anomalies that resulted from the disaster have enabled the squatters to develop an extreme form of parkour known as “battle-kour”, in which five-a-side teams perform previously impossible leaps, jumps, and climbs as they compete for precious supplies. Of all the teams, the “Blue Blazers” are one of the best; and of their number, Hibiki is the very best, often winning competitions single-handed. But Hibiki is aloof and withdrawn, still afflicted by his hyperacusis; and one day he becomes convinced that he can hear the Tokyo Tower singing. When he sets off to explore, disaster follows; but Hibiki is saved from death by a strange, fey girl named Uta.  Thus begins a series of events in which Hibiki must confront the painful memories of the past; and in which the disaster that began with the “bubble fall” might come to its final, cataclysmic conclusion…

Based in part on concepts derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid”, Bubble was produced by Wit Studio and premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2022, before releasing on the Netflix streaming service in April ahead of a theatrical release in Japanese cinemas in May 2022. With some of anime’s leading lights – Tetsuro Araki, Gen Urobuchi, and Takeshi Obata – in the production team, it hardly comes as a surprise that Bubble is stunningly animated in a compelling mix of traditional 2D and 3D methods combined with 3DCGI, producing a gorgeous visual aesthetic. The characters are mostly stock ensemble tropes who nonetheless help create the atmosphere of a slightly disreputable community of loners and outcasts, while Hibiki himself is the very embodiment of alienation and outsiderness.  Uta is in many respects the most interesting member of the cast, following a growth arc from almost imbecilic incoherence to complex – and tragic – insight that enables Hibiki to reconstitute the fractured elements of his broken personality. However, while the story itself is entertaining and moves at a good clip, it leaves too many loose threads and unexplained elements to be wholly satisfying. Who – or what – are the bubbles? Where did they come from? Why did they concentrate in Tokyo? What is the mysterious link Hibiki and Uta share that apparently pre-dates the “bubble fall”? What is the conflict within the bubbles themselves that threatens to precipitate a final cataclysm? Moreover, Uta herself bears a more than passing resemblance – on a whole lot of levels – to Lala-Ru from Now and Then, Here and There; and the conclusion likewise closely echoes that series’ ultimate outcome (although with an arguably less sombre tone). Wonderful to look at and sufficiently captivating for an afternoon’s easy entertainment, Bubble is also slightly disappointing in that it leaves one with the conviction that the interesting premise might so easily have produced so much more.

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