[Hello all and welcome back to Weeb Analysis where this month we’ll be taking a look at the bubbly and intimate Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop! Weeb Analysis is a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are truly the classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. The question now stands: is Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop worth analyzing, or is it a waste of your time?]
If you know anything about me, you will know that romance is not my forte. Whenever I’m asked to watch any kind of love story, whether it be a big blockbuster or a smaller drama, it’s absolutely repellent to me. My general disdain towards the genre mostly comes from how, more often than not, the stories that are being told just aren’t interesting to me. Most romances usually start and end the same way because it needs to hit certain beats and make sure that by the end, hearts swoon and people are left feeling warm and happy. See any Hallmark Christmas movie, Little Women, Twilight, etc.
That isn’t to say that I can’t get into any romances, but it’s exceptionally hard. Movies like Spontaneous at least distill the romance through multiple genres and don’t play by the rules of traditional rom-com. But it can work in traditional means. It just oftentimes doesn’t work for anime.
I know that if you look hard enough, you’ll find a romance anime that I would concede is good, but you have to understand that most romance anime nowadays don’t really even bother trying to be worth your salt. I’ve lost count of the different romance anime that have come out over the years that have simply failed to impress me. Last year I thought I would give it a try with Rent-A-Girlfriend, only to be bewilderingly depressed. Then earlier this year I heard about a critically acclaimed manga called Horimiya was getting an anime adaptation, only to be left ambivalent to the end results. Even the legendary Fruits Basket was a struggle to get through by how glacial the plot moved at times. What can I say? Watching a romance film is hard enough, but expecting me to tune in for 12 weeks at the minimum is a really hard ask.
That’s why I took such an interest a few weeks ago when I heard about a film released on Netflix called Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop. It’s an unusual title, but the buzz that I’ve heard around it has been nothing short of overwhelmingly positive, so I decided why not watch it? So I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to watch it (as a good boyfriend would), and we spent a night just watching two young kids get to know each other and fall in love.
Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop takes place in the real-world Aeon Mall in Takasaki as we follow two young high schoolers known as Cherry (Somegoro Ichikawa/ Ivan Mok) and Smile (Hana Sugisaki/ Kimberley Wong). The two of them meet at a mall after accidentally switching phones and the two start to learn a lot about one another. Cherry loves to write haiku yet has severe anxiety about public speaking. Smile is a successful influencer with thousands of viewers but is becoming increasingly self-conscious of her buck-teeth. Over time, both Cherry and Smile try to help a local old man, Mr. Fujiyama, reclaim a lost record, one that he’s actively seeking since it contains the last vocal recordings of his late wife as he slowly begins to lose his memories.
Now I know what you’re thinking and yes, this is yet another anime romance centered around two high schoolers. In anime, there are no romances between older couples. It’s exceptionally rare to see any anime star an adult, and that definition of adulthood begins with anyone out of university. It’s not too uncommon to see why when you break it down, and no it’s not just because of merchandise and creepers being creepers (though that does play a part, sad to say). Young people are all too often romanticized in fiction for their purity and innocence, so when a young person falls in love, it’s not for anything other than the pure love they feel for one another.
Take, for example, the most prototypical story about young love, Romeo & Juliet. The super boring reading of the story is one of two young lovers who are deeply in love with each other, yet no one will accept their love so they take their own lives. In reality, the play is about how generations of conflict cause untold destruction and can ruin even something as pure and innocent as love. It’s the damn point of the opening monologue but the reading adopted by pop culture completely disregards that opening. Society has deemed it to be a story about the tragedy of young love and nothing more. Young love is pure and cannot survive in a world that is not pure, so most romance stories in anime cater to young lovers to show the purity of love, a purity that many of us have become jaded to. It’s a rose-tinted look at what we used to see when we had our first love.
This sense of magic is further exacerbated by the fantastical elements that are thrust upon our protagonists in countless anime romances. If you’ve ever seen any Makoto Shinkai film then this should be second nature to you. Your Name and Weathering With You live by this approach. Without that fantastical element, the proceedings can seem dry and boring, yet Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop never once comes across like that mostly because it has confidence in its ability to make you connect with the characters.
As we were watching the movie, my girlfriend and I both asked each other over an hour into this 90-minute movie if this even was a romance. We both had trouble agreeing on whether it was or not at that point because Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop wasn’t interested in thrusting Cherry and Smile together and making them a couple to fill some obligated quota. There are signs of intimacy, like Smile starting to work at the rehab clinic Cherry works at or Cherry following Smile on social media, but it never comes across as more than friendship most of the time. Instead, the movie goes into a more grounded and realistic depiction of their developing romance as both of them struggle to even relate to one another.
Both Cherry and Smile think they’re flawed. Cherry loves to write haiku and will pen multiple poems on a daily basis, but will immediately shutter up when he is asked to speak. He isolates himself from the world, signified by him wearing headphones nearly all of the time, opting to be left in his own world rather than interact with other people who may judge him and his hobby. At the end of the day, Cherry lacks the confidence to do what he wants to do and feels judged for his decision to write haiku despite no one ever criticizing him for doing it.
Smile, on the other hand, has a problem that feels all too relatable to most teenage girls: she’s self-conscious of her appearance. Smile has buck teeth and while she thought they were adorable and loved them as a kid, by the time she reached adolescence, she thinks they’re disgusting. They’re a part of her body and the only way she can feel comfortable interacting with others is by wearing a face mask, not dissimilar from the ones we’ve been wearing for well over a year now. No one can know or see what she’s really like despite, once again, no one ever criticizing her for having buck teeth.
Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop establishes its two leads wonderfully and lets us see just how the two of them grow to like each other as friends first before viewing each other as lovers. The confession of love only comes at the very, very end of the movie, so we see the two just be teenagers and hang around the mall. They have friends that they go to work with, they help each other out in a pinch, and slowly, their defenses start to peel away… except for Smile.
In a note that really stood out, as the movie progressed, Cherry was the first one to start to break out of his shell. He began to appear less and less frequently with his headphones. He begins to read his haiku to the old people he helps rehabilitate. He may not notice it, but he’s actively taking steps to change. But Smile never tries to take her mask off. As they bond, she’s still masked at all times, doing whatever she can to make sure that no one sees her face. It really makes you stop and think that no matter how much progress the two are making socially, one summer and one relationship isn’t going to magically wash away years of inferiority and self-loathing. By the end she takes it off, but only after Cherry confesses everything to her. Only then can he see who she really is and her smile.
This is a plot that is entirely reliant on you understanding its central characters and why they’re so self-conscious. They’re teenagers and they come across like them. They are not wonder kids who have all of the looks and no drawbacks whatsoever. These are some of the most relatable anime characters I’ve encountered in a while because I know people like them. I’ve met many people who are afraid to share their works publically and are a bit afraid to show their bodies to others. Cherry and Smile are not perfect but that makes them perfect to watch and root for.
But there’s still even more heart in the movie thanks to the record subplot. The proprietor of the record store, Mr. Fujiyama, is searching the entire movie for his late wife’s record just to hear her voice one last time before he forgets about her completely. It’s a bit atypical of a subplot for a romance anime, but it’s effective if only because of the catharsis of when it’s finally attained. The second he hears her voice, he’s teleported away to a memory that feels all too familiar and is almost ethereal in its execution. It will make you well up because it feels earned. Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop knows exactly when to shift the focus to the young lovers and the widowed Fujiyama.
I can’t say, however, that the Fujiyama subplot goes off without a hitch. Music is a key point in his arc due to his search for his wife’s record as well as his record store. That’s a deep respect and knowledge of records that Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop brings to the table, but it feels almost like background dressing without any real merit to it. It used records as a plot device but doesn’t really use it all that well. There’s so much history to Fujiyama’s record store that everyone decides to come along one say to clean it up while searching for his lost record, but it’s one of the more boring scenes of the movie.
I’m alright with the fact that the movie doesn’t want to discuss music and its impact on others, but it still feels weird to dedicate so much of the runtime to a place where the writers have a clear repertoire of knowledge related to records and maintaining/preserving them if it’s only going to be kept at arms’ length.
There’s a simple charm to everything that Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop brings to the table though. Its visuals are dripping with bright colors that liven up every frame of animation and it’s all to create a world that I can only describe as “cute.” It’s a cute movie with a cute couple in a cute little part of the world. It’s down to Earth as well, never trying to be this gigantic spectacle of wonder and love. When Cherry is delivering his confession to Smile at the film’s climax, no one listens to him. This is despite him being on a loudspeaker pouring his heart out for everyone to hear.
A lot of anime romances have a tendency to blend in with one another. I find it hard to tell many of them apart except for the ones that decide to go very out of a traditional visual or thematic framework (see Revolutionary Girl Utena) and as much as it pains me to say, I don’t know if Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop will be able to escape that. That has less to do with the choice of genre and more so the glut of anime being produced year after year, but it’s still a problem nonetheless. It’s a cute and simple movie, but I don’t know if it will have any impact on me a month, or even a week from now.
In an industry where everyone is trying to create the next big thing, original movies like Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop can and will struggle to survive. I have to praise Netflix for its distribution of this film because it was released day and date with the Japanese version, trying to generate interest in this film all at once rather than lead potential viewers to pirate it after hearing about its praises. It just bums me out that so much is stacked against original movies like this succeeding, including my own misgivings about the film.
I like Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop. I like it a lot. It has enough charm and passion behind its production and attention to its all too relatable characters. I can relate to this film way more than any other anime film I’ve seen this year, and my girlfriend felt the exact same way. We loved it. But would we be saying the same thing about it a month from now? A week from now? Can romances like the ones between Cherry and Smile really stand the test of time in an industry and market that doesn’t favor smaller projects? We want to believe it because this is a movie worth seeing. Much like Romeo & Juliet, I feel that the nature of the world cannot support pieces like Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop and they will die off in obscurity. A tragedy for our time created out of a relatable movie of friendship becoming love.
January 2021: Anime of the Year Awards 2020
February 2021: Akudama Drive
March 2021: On-Gaku: Our Sound
April 2021: The Promised Neverland
May 2021: SK8 the Infinity
June 2021: Odd Taxi
July 2021: Beastars