Kyōhei Ishiguro‘s debut feature film was the unfortunate victim of COVID-19 delays in 2020, but if you do manage to watch this, it is absolutely the perfect pick-me-up for a depressing year. If you’re in the mood to watch a sweet teen rom-com, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. And even if you might think that your heart has been hardened to the point where nothing cute can sway you anymore, Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop will probably still bring a goofy smile to your face—like it did for me.
Like other teen romance anime films that have emerged in the wake of your name., Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is a very accessible film that you can easily recommend to someone who has never watched a minute of anime in their lives. The characters are cute because of their earnest personalities, rather than moe otaku tropes or character design quirks. It’s also set in the backdrop of a suburban shopping mall that pretty much anyone can imagine themselves in.
The most striking thing about Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is its visuals, which are heavily inspired by pop art. The bright colors are immediately appealing, and the animation itself has a vibrancy that matches the aesthetic. The opening sequence is an absolute delight of fun character animation coupled with energetic gags and action. The rest of the film doesn’t carry quite as much energy, but it’s still a charming watch from start to finish.
After I had adjusted to the art style, it was the characters that drew me into the story. To some degree, I found both leads relatable as dorky teens with self-confidence issues, but as someone who also wore braces as a teen, Smile is particularly close to my heart. The way she wears a surgical mask to feel more secure about her appearance may seem ironic at a time when everyone is being told to wear masks, but well before the days of COVID-19, surgical masks enjoyed a lot of popularity in Japan for fashion reasons. By wearing a mask in a place where it’s socially acceptable to do so, it can feel like some of your inhibitions have gone away. This is a feeling I can definitely relate to, and I could see myself liking and subscribing to Smile’s videos, where she cheerfully highlights the cute things in life while wearing a mask.
The other thing I really like about these characters is the respect they have for their senior citizens. Being a haiku writer, it was natural that Cherry would vibe with the elderly, but it turns out that those older characters play a pivotal part in the film. The plot centers on a search for a vinyl record that featured Mr. Fujiyama’s deceased wife, and along the way our characters discover what they have in common. It’s a heartwarming theme in these times of turbulent change, where history threatens to be eroded by the march of modernity, and even those still alive are being forgotten by the world around them.
All of these narrative themes come together in the musical score, which is a particularly remarkable piece of work in its own right. It was a genius move to combine haiku poetry with hip hop, resulting in a very memorable musical sequence in the final act. I also love how the pop song that this film’s plot hinges on sounds like a product of its time while still having a timeless sort of appeal to it. Even outside the vocal performances, the background music is one of the highlights of the film. Kyōhei Ishiguro is also known for directing the music-themed teen love story Your Lie in April, and he applies that keen understanding of how music complements the inner lives of the characters to this film as well.
Whether the appeal of this film fully gets across to foreign audiences may depend on how well it is translated, as some parts of the plot hinge on Japanese wordplay and cultural minutiae. For example, Cherry uses haiku to express his feelings, a form of poetry that is distinctive for its syllable count but also uses words which are associated with seasons, but aren’t always immediately identifiable as such when translated into English. There’s also a gag that revolves around the similarities between the kanji for “tooth” versus “leaf.” But for the most part, this should be a straightforward film to understand, featuring characters and themes that are easy to relate to. Please do watch this if you get the chance to.
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