Review of Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2020)

Moving picture, 87 minutes

Seen in 2021.

Two teenagers have a meet cute. One of them is already involved in an old man’s search for a particular vinyl record.

Untextured, vibrant, all-digital pop-art colour design enables cel-style 3D animation in the backgrounds of this romantic comedy. The interior of a local mall is the main environment, but even the extras moving in the background are 3D CGI, rendered to look flat. The character design is good though, including the simplified 2D stuff; I especially like the typically teenage awkwardness of the male lead’s throat and neck, as well as the female lead’s braces. The background stuff is also well executed for what it is, but it makes a more superficial impression than the hand-painted poster-colour backgrounds of analogue animation. The concentric irregular polygons used for lens flare are manually composed but similarly attention-seeking in their artificiality.

There’s one jarring feature of the visuals. The male lead has a friend called Beaver, whose father writes only Spanish. Beaver is a juvenile delinquent who graffiti-tags the male lead’s haikus all over town to practice his kanji, often getting some wrong. The thing is that the artists who made the film picked linearly soft brushes in their digital painting tool, with pressure-controlled width, to draw Beaver’s spray-can graffiti. The result is a far cry from photorealism. It is instantly recognizable as the cheapest possible solution if you’ve worked with similar technology. The studio didn’t even bother to emulate the boy’s supposedly poor handwriting.

Beneath the visuals, the plot runs on standard juvenile romcom tropes, tinted by a nostalgic nationalism and the theme of elder care. I sense the shadow of Shinkai Makoto in the dramaturgy and the way that search for the record connects the plot to the past, but Shinkai’s depth is not here. Instead, the boy’s interest in haikus is compared to rap to make it hip like Devilman, and integrated, through Beaver, with glamourized graffiti. It’s also uploaded on social media, where the girl is a video streamer, but that is just barely a plot point. The sterile mall setting cements the film as cutting with the grain of popular culture, where the Whisper of the Heart (1995) cut against.

moving picture Japanese production animation fiction