Tetsurō Araki’s Affectionate View of Existentialism and Love
Tetsurō Araki, a notable Japanese animator and director, is known for his dark anime projects like The attack of the Titans and Death threat. So it’s interesting to see Araki take a decidedly lighter approach to directing with his latest film, Bubble. Netflix
If you want a full breakdown of the film’s puzzling elements and the story it tells, be sure to check it out my detailed explanation. But to cut to the chase, the premise of the film’s elaborate and nuanced world is pretty straightforward. Years ago, mysterious bubbles fell to Earth from space. And while the rest of the world walked away unfazed, Tokyo was decimated and left to decay. The city was closed to the general public and Tokyo quickly became home to young rebels who lost their families in the disaster. Now these youngsters spend their days participating in a parkour-like game of capture the flag.
Our main character, Hibiki, is in the middle of an existential dilemma. Thanks to a hearing impairment, he has always felt isolated from society. And because of the Bubble-Fall phenomenon, he is physically forced to be outside of normal life. As part of his search to find inner peace, he constantly tries to find the source of a ghostly song that emanates from the center of the original explosion that destroyed Tokyo. And during this search, he meets an alien girl named Uta, his love interest in the film.
The rest of the film follows the development of their relationship as Hibiki tries to discover herself spiritually and make sense of this lonely new world. While their love is romantic, Bubble is not exactly a romantic story. The film closely follows the story of The little Mermaid-and no, not the Disney Little Mermaid. The original Danish fairy tale was written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, which carries a significantly darker tone than the Disney version of events.
In the original story, the takeaways are less about fairytale love and more about selflessness and spirituality. All kinds of existential questions arise: What do you represent for this world? Do you put others before yourself? Can you really love someone else if you don’t love yourself? These are questions the Little Mermaid is forced to confront.
But curiously, Bubble reverses history and positions the dilemma around Hibiki, the prince of the original fairy tale. Hibiki is the one who has to learn from Uta, who is going through her own crisis in this alien world. As he becomes more and more open to Uta’s strange behaviors and cares for her, we also see him opening up to the world. He becomes more of a team player. He starts asking people questions. And the most important thing: he’s starting to take care of himself a little more.
Surrounding this incredibly relatable story of finding your purpose is an interesting world full of fun and colorful characters. For a film with such a specific little love story, Bubble feels much larger and more impactful in terms of scope and social commentary. Tokyo is invaded by orphans abandoned by society. They feel drawn to a city that the rest of the world no longer recognizes and has abandoned. They find comfort in their unity, in their rebellion. Together, they all find their true identity.
This ties in with a central theme of the film: rebirth. This theme is constantly conveyed by Araki contrasting macro-elements with micro-elements. The bubbles came from outer space, a celestial force beyond our control. Once scientists can make sense of the Bubble-Fall phenomenon, the government can step in to rebuild the city – a social force trying to regain control. And the children of the now abandoned Tokyo must learn to start over, to find themselves in this changing world – an individual strength trying to find among the chaos.
Bubble creates a sci-fi world that uses fantasy elements to convey a simple, universal struggle we all face. As the world changes, everything seems so much bigger than ourselves. But we are a very important piece in this big, ever-changing puzzle. And our individual struggles to find mental comfort are part of a much larger, universe-spanning arc. Bubble empowers the individual, those who feel left behind by society. When the world is not on your side, you are your best friend. You can’t help others until you learn to love yourself.