There is something to be said for the anime feature. Not only is the animation generally more detailed an expressive than the bulk of serialised anime, it also seems better tailored for the time-poor fans of the genre. There is no need to commit to anything from 12 to 981 episodes (ask me again why I have never bothered trying One Piece), instead there is simply a solid and enjoyable 90 to 120 minutes. Streaming services and western video distributors have generally favoured the anime series, with only the highest profile and most commercial films getting much exposure outside of their home country. Lately it has been easier to see them: in the case of Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop, Netflix picked up global distribution rights for themselves.
An awkward teen romance is expressed with striking and emotive animation in this new feature, one that marks the film debut of animation director Kyohei Ishigiro. With previous directing credits on the series Your Lie in April, Psycho Pass, and Children of the Whales, Ishigiro is afforded the chance to co-write (with Dai Sato of Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell SAC fame) and direct his own original work. The results are delightful.
Cherry is a quiet and withdrawn teen who covers for his sick mother at a local old people’s home. Too shy to easily form friendships, he expresses himself via haiku distributed on social media. He meets Smile, another teenager, who wears a face mask to hide her braces and who finds it easier to present short videos online than hold a normal conversation. While helping a senile old man rediscover a long-lost vinyl record, Cherry and Smiles head into a tentative friendship and romance.
The plot is, as you might expect, as generic as it sounds. At the same time, Ishigiro and Sato’s screenplay interrogates to a satisfying degree the influence of online and social media on contemporary Japanese youth. The virtual world is more comfortable than the real one, and certainly suits both introverts in their romantic pursuits. They are people that have grown up in a heavily interconnected and online world, and thus eschew the reliance on the natural world that many anime romances tend to exhibit.
The film also creates a sharp contrast between Smiles’ social media expressions and Cherry’s haiku compositions: equally inspired activities, but poles apart in their age and style. This variety of creative play is enhanced by the presence of Beaver, a Latino immigrant who has taken to spray painting Cherry’s haiku around down as graffiti. Self-expression seems to be at the core of Soda Pop, and it both expresses characters and allows its leads to interact.
The animation has a brightly coloured, almost neon, palette, and a deliberately scratchy, hand-drawn aesthetic. While CGI is liberally used to enhance the visuals, Ishigiro successfully creates a style that looks attractive, is visually arresting, and suits the enthusiasm of his characters. There is more than a passing similarity to recent films by Masaaki Yuasa (Ride Your Wave, Lu Over the Wall), but thankfully a distinct look that allows it stand apart on its own terms.
This is an intimate, emotive story with humour and heart, and its expressed with energy and warmth. Ishigiro has already completed his second directorial feature – an animated spin-off of Netflix’s fantasy film Bright – but hopefully it will not be long before he gets to express himself via an original film again.