This is a movie worthy of moving to the front of your watch list and then finding an excuse to take the next ninety minutes away from whatever it is you’re doing and go watch. Go on, I’ll wait. Seriously, it is a beautiful film that tells a charming story of young love using a unique visual language, and it’s rollicking good fun. But on a deeper level, it is also a poetic ode of the most moving kind.
The title, Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop, is a haiku, the 17th century poetic form consisting of seventeen syllables written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. This use of haiku is not simply a way of flagging up the lyrical idiosyncrasy of one of the main characters though; it also foreshadows the very nature of the movie itself as a creative work born of unexpected juxtapositions—a whole that represents more than the sum of its parts. Haiku explode typical grammar patterns and common clichés in a search for new ways of expressing the beauty of nature, and this is exactly what this movie, from Your Lie in April director Kyohei Ishiguro, does for the romance anime, both in its plot and its art.
Let me begin with the latter. Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop comes to us from studio Signal.MD, a relative newcomer (spun off from Production I.G) with a nevertheless diverse portfolio. The haiku film takes the popping color scheme of the studio’s earlier works like FLCL Progressive and The Wonderland, and turns the hue saturation up to 110%, electrifying the visuals like neon lights. The human eye takes about twenty minutes to adjust to new color palettes, so if at first you find it a bit much, just hang in there because you’re about to be blown away by the movie’s vision of a world so full of color you can taste it.
The boldness of the visual palette contrasts with the fineness of the line work and the use of kagenashi—or shadowless, almost flat color design, a style the studio adopts in Mars Red too, and which is reminiscent of Liz and the Blue Bird and Japan Sinks 2020. (Incidentally, the masterful composer Kensuke Ushio, of A Silent Voice fame, did the soundtrack for both of these last two projects as well as Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop.)
At first these two styles may seem at odds. But this actually speaks to the kind of harmony between opposites that lies at the heart of this story…
Now for the story itself.
The premise of the movie is pretty standard: boy meets girl; each has their own insecurities; summer months roll by as they draw closer to one another, culminating in a dramatic confession scene.
Usually, the relative strength or weakness of the romance plot hinges on the winsomeness of the MCs: is the girl a unique and refreshing take on the Quirky Girl trope? Is the boy’s particular brand of awkwardness heart-warming? Are their insecurities both relatable and under-represented enough in the genre to warrant watching?
Smile and Cherry, our girl and boy, would fare very well in this kind of reviewers’ test. But this isn’t the only thing, or even the main thing, that makes this film such a rewarding watch.
Instead, the film’s strengths lie in the way that it underplays the usual dramatic tension of the romance plot, and shifts the focus onto the theme of poetic harmony (the core of traditional Japanese storytelling or kishotenketsu), especially between generations and between modern life and tradition. At its heart, this is a tale about a young love that is made possible by an old love and by the fusing of millennial culture and ancient Japanese artistry.
So first, the dramatic tension. In most romances—maybe even all of them—the protagonists’ insecurities serve as stumbling blocks to the romantic plot. They are not only challenges that must be overcome for love to win, but they also actively block love and cause misunderstanding at some point. The boy thinks he’s not worthy of the girl because of his issue; the girl thinks she’s unlovable because of her thing; or maybe it’s the other way around. The insecurities, then, are the Enemy of Love and Romance, the true villain of the story, even if there is a meddlesome third party character thrown in there too.
In Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop, Smile is self-conscious about her prominent teeth and braces, which inspire her to wear a mask and literally hide her identity as the girl nicknamed Smile by her adoring social media followers. For his part, Cherry avoids public speaking and too much speaking of any kind really, which is why he wears large headphones—to put people off. His nickname is based on his last name, Sakura, but it could just as well be a reference to the color that he turns whenever the spotlight is on him.
Stumbling block to romance: check!
You can definitely see how these issues could play the villain in scuppering their happy ending.
Only, that’s not what happens. Instead, their insecurities are what makes them approachable to one another—two teens who otherwise exist in such different worlds—Smile as a social media star, and Cherry as the quiet boy-poet who carries around a paper copy (!!) of a dictionary specifically for composing haiku. Popular girl and nerd boy. But they discover during their first conversation that each has their own insecurity, which they realize they are able to relate to, though not in so many words. Smile’s mask even serves to tone down her exuberance, which might otherwise have been intimidating for the quiet Cherry. From the beginning, then, their vulnerabilities draw them together, giving them grace for one another.
What a revelation! Isn’t this the way things are meant to be? Where our own issues no longer consume us to the point that our own internal dialogue creates the villains in our lives, but instead, where our awareness of our own weaknesses actually makes it easier to reach out to other flawed human beings? I’ve not seen “issues” handled this way in a romance before, and I really like it. Rather than turning their insecurities into melodramatic mountains, the film lets the protagonists walk out their journey together in a much more natural, and far less fraught way. (Also, the way that Smile’s sisters react to the sudden onset of her self-consciousness is really sweet!)
Even more than the gentle way that it treats the teens’ issues, this film is compelling for the value it shows for intergenerational relationships and tradition as a source of inspiration and courage for modern youth.
The romance between Smile and Cherry predictably plays out largely over social media and consists of tentative follows, likes, and live streams. What is most charming about this phase in their relationship is the way that their parents don’t quite know what to make of it all. There are only hints of the parents’ bewilderment, but it’s enough to make you realize just how strange the social media age must be for parents! When and how does the girl’s father sit the boy down for The Talk if it’s all virtual interaction?
But what brings the two teens together in actual reality is the elderly haiku-shouting Mr Fujiyama and the folks at the seniors daytime activity center at the mall, where Cherry works. After bumping into one another, Smile ends up joining Cherry and the team at the day center. When they realize that Mr Fujiyama’s constant search for something is not simply a mark of senility, but is an actual legit quest, the teens team up to help in the search. It’s their tender care for the old man that brings Cherry and Smile together, day after day, and gives their love the time and room it needs to grow.
The rest of the story is rich with details that parallel the stories of Mr. and Mrs. Fujiyama and Cherry and Smile—just small gossamer strands connecting the generations and their tales of finding acceptance and love, and the courage to take hold of it (especially in the confession scene; arigatou, Mr Fujiyama!). It is the layers of meaning in these tiny touches that make this film truly poetic. Like a haiku, their stories do not rhyme in a sing-song way, but they do echo like repeated syllables embedded in different words, or like “up” and “pop” in the title of the movie; imperfect rhymes, but evocative nonetheless. For an example with spoilers, consider the meanings of the couples’ names:Click here to reveal a spoiler
And a non-spoiler example: Haiku poetry is devoted to celebrating nature, and as such, there are certain topics that cannot easily be addressed using its particular vocabulary—at least not directly. Instead, they need a bridge, a metaphorical connection that can incorporate the features of modern life into the language of the natural world. This is what Cherry does with many of his poems, like “Apartments with fresh ivy, we’re in number 305”, and Fujiyama too, “The cicadas can be heard even by the girl behind her mask”, which he writes about Smile.
These compositions absorb the symptoms of modernity into nature, painting a picture of urban life where nature persists, breathing life into concrete. To hit this point home, the movie has rambunctious Spanish sidekick, Beaver, tag the entire world of mall, highway, and apartment complex with Cherry’s poetry, using graffiti to practice his Japanese writing. Cherry’s words draw the viewers’ attention away from the familiar template of big box stores and suburban sprawl to contemplate instead the natural world, and begin to recognize its colors and light where before the eye skimmed over them.
Through these kinds of parallels, rhymes and juxtapositions, Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop finds a type of harmony: The fast pace of modern life melds with the deliberate slowness of the traditional Daruma dance; urban space with nature; young with old; until finally at the film’s climax, the written word becomes spoken. This is a film about points of meeting—both for the characters and Japanese culture—and the transformation that comes from these meetings.
To sum up then, this is a brilliant little film that you can enjoy as a delightful love story with fascinating artwork, or on a deeper level as a quest for harmony in an age of over-saturation and overload. It is a neon love poem for the social media generation, tugging at viewers’ hearts and feeds and inviting them to look up from screens, to look back to the generations that have gone before, and so to find the missing pieces that make for a happy ending.
Color explosion uniting worlds across time neon love poem
Also, be sure to wait for the final image in the credits. And watch the shadows. 😉