There's still room in the anime scene for poignant teen romances and Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop has that in spades.
This movie is streaming on Netflix
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Jean-Karlo, I don't mean to brag, but I've done a darn good job almost completely cutting down my soda intake recently. A lot of people ask me what my secret is, so I'm here to share the one weird trick the Coca-Cola corporation DOESN'T want you to know: turns out I can get all the sweetness and effervescence I need out of just one movie.
Me, I've been nursing a two-liter of Shasta this weekend, so I'm damn near diabetic after this movie. Now, the title might cause some consternation because I know there are some regional differences for how you refer to soft drinks, but I really don't have the energy for meme fights (and this also goes for you pedants who think it's funny to ask VTubers if hot dogs are sandwiches). Kick back, crack open a Mountain Dew, and enjoy with us as we have fun with a very lovely film. This is Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop.
Man, I can't remember the last time I watched something for this column that was this uncomplicated in its pleasantness. Just a feel-good movie from start to finish, from toe to tip. I mean, just look at how bright and colorful this palette is! Pure candy delivered directly to my eyeballs.
Longtime readers know I have enough beef with Old Man Hayao and his artistic philosophies to start a dairy farm, and lament that so much of his style felt like the template for animated films from Japan for so long (here's looking at you, Hosoda). So lemme just say I loved this movie. It's nice to see an uncomplicated teen romance that isn't also an aging directors bloviated take on how animation should be and just... a really pretty movie meant to commemorate a studio's 10th anniversary.
This is also the first thing helmed by Kyōhei Ishiguro that I can say I really loved. Not to knock on the guy at all, because he's always had a fined-tuned directorial eye, but I feel like Soda Pop is where everything clicks together: the youthful exuberance, the palette, the musicality.
And for the rest of this column, I'm just gonna hold onto that buoyant optimism and try not to remember that his next project is that sequel to Bright that absolutely nobody wants.
So, I wanna start by pointing something out: Soda Pop takes place in and around a certain mall. As ANN reader Neko-Sensei pointed out in the comments of ANN's actual review for Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop, that's an actual mall—the Aeon Mall in Takasaki. And it's very true to the location! It's changed a bit over the years, but details like the gachapon machines or the abundance of daruma dolls (they're apparently a local product) are accurate to the mall and surrounding city. Also, there is apparently a local population of South American immigrants, though apparently Brazilian, so Beaver should probably speak Portuguese and not Spanish. But nevertheless, it's amazing to see such love and care in depicting a city down to its minorities.
Fun fact: the actual Aeon Mall even held a stamp rally to commemorate the release of this film!
Ah, that's neat intel! Tho just from the film alone, I could kind of tell the locale had to rooted in a real place. There's just so much warmth and attention to detail infused in the setting. I also appreciate that the film doesn't "sanitize" its setting for the sake of some idealized vision of vibrancy. In fact, a major aesthetic/thematic component of the film are these scattered pillow shots of haiku graffiti.
In other words, you love to see a film that understands the beauty of a place that's well-lived-in.
We're getting a little ahead of ourselves, but yes: this movie loves the crap out of its setting, and this love extends to a lot of the side characters. They may not get much screentime or much to do outside of their little one-note bits, but they feel so much more than that. From the South American Beaver whose graffiti marks every inch of the town, to Japan and his bubbly passion for his favorite idol (as a VTuber victim who has a certain wolf girl as his mousepad: same), this has a lovely cast of people who all feel like your best friends the moment you meet them. Even the stuffy-looking owner of the mall feels like someone the cast would invite to the cookout in a heartbeat.
Yeah the main mall setting reinforces that the film isn't just about its two adorable teen leads falling in love. This is a place where people from all walks of life gather. And make funny faces.
Even the fact that all of these characters have cute nicknames speaks of their depths (we know their nicknames because at one point protagonist Cherry points out his real name is "Sakura"). Why is Beaver "Beaver"? Why is Japan "Japan"? Why is Cherry's mom "Maria"? You had to be there to know, at the end of the day.
Clearly, Beaver's name is Beaver because it makes it that much funnier when people get mad at him for emulating Bart Simpson too much.
But enough about rodents voiced by Rich Horvitz and Nick Bakay; our story centers around two other teenagers. The first is the aforementioned Cherry, a young man who loves haiku. He has a Twitter page where he posts his poems on the regular, but his mother is the only person who interacts with them. He also has social anxiety, so he hides behind his headphones all day.
The other is Smile, a teenager from a whole family of livestreamers. She's very popular but recently became very self-conscious of her buckteeth, such that she's getting them corrected with braces. She otherwise hides her face behind a medical mask at all times.
Smile, I know and appreciate that the film revolves around you gaining enough confidence to remove your mask, but uh, maybe you should just keep wearing it for the time being. Just to be safe. Trust me.
Also, not even joking, I am 100% on Smile's "do not perceive me" side. Masks are so good for that. I can't believe I went that long without taking advantage of them.
But I digress: her braceface is very cute.
There's a bit in the Galko-chan manga where the girls discuss how Japan doesn't have the same views on straight teeth as the US does, hence why it's perfectly common to find popular idols or models in Japan with crooked teeth and nobody thinks twice about it (hence why some girls in manga, like Galko, have fangs—they're supposed to be snaggleteeth). And in Smile's case, yes, they do give her a lot of charm. A plot point is that her unique smile was part of what helped her establish her popularity when she was younger.
I'm getting ahead of myself again, but the movie also points out a pun in Japanese involving teeth and cherry blossoms, and a major plot point involves a departed woman who, surprise surprise, also had buck teeth like Smile's. So let this be a lesson to folks: just because your teeth aren't perfectly aligned, doesn't mean that you don't have a pretty smile.
And of course it's less about buckteeth specifically and more about the universal experience of becoming a teenager and growing self-conscious about literally anything and everything, no matter how dumb it might be. On the other side of the equation, Cherry writes haiku after haiku without a problem, but he freezes up whenever he's put on the spot to read them.
He gets quite bristly and has Opinions™ about haiku, but he's just scared of people.
You sure it's that, buddy? You sure it's the unique merits of the artform and not just the fact that you're in high school and anything that causes you to be aware of your own voice makes you want to burrow into the earth's mantle?
Which does lead to this painfully adorable interaction, when Smile actually compliments his voice.
Boy, I've been there.
The real cute is their literal Meet Cute: Beaver's shenanigans (a wildly animated sequence itself) force the two teenagers to bump into each other and also accidentally swap phones.
As soon as I saw that collision, I definitely thought they were gonna swap bodies, not phones. I'm glad that's not the case, but that's how you can tell I've watched too many Shinkai/Hosoda romances.
I do genuinely like the ways in which social media plays into the scaffolding of their relationship. I'm a little too old to have had to worry about Twitter follows during my high school courtships, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy all this secondhand awkwardness.
What follows is your typical cute summer romance: Smile continues her streaming, while Cherry continues writing his haiku, most of which are inspired by Smile herself. There's the rub, however...
As it turns out, Cherry's family is planning on moving away from town in a few weeks. Cherry doesn't have the heart to tell Smile what's going on, meanwhile Smile wants to ask Cherry to the daruma festival (an actual event the town holds).
Gotta add some drama somehow I guess! It's the one mildly frustrating part of the film for me, because the whole moving subplot really doesn't fit in thematically with anything else, besides the expected plot beats of a film like this. Not egregious, but a little lazy imo.
The "moving" subplot ties in a little with the other main crux of the film. See, old man Fujiyama (who's sundowning) is missing an old vinyl record. He owns the old records store in town, but since he's getting too old to run it himself and nobody else can run it they'll be closing up soon. Smile, Cherry, and friends set out to find the record for him before he moves away. And, like... that could have been your big time limit. Have Fujiyama's health be fading until you find the record. That works.
Yeah, I think that would've felt more "correct." Also because the Fujiyama subplot is my favorite part of the film! Even though I was already having a good time up to that point, I can't tell you how much I perked up when Smile and Cherry walked inside his record shop.
I have so much fondness for small hole-in-the-wall places like this, where you can just flip through old vinyl for hours. And clearly the film has a lot of fondness for them too, going so far as to draw the wear and tear on the cardboard boxes. I want to go to there.
There's probably an actual shop like Fujiyama's in Takasaki somewhere, with any luck it's still lovingly run to this day.
Hopefully! Though Soda Pop also covers the one downside of a record shop like this, and that's the despair of trying to find one particular vinyl when the store is maybe only loosely organized at best.
God, I could feel the tedium of looking for that album.
The search for the album also has a nice backstory to it: as it turns out, the album was from Fujiyama's departed wife, and he was the photographer who snapped her photo for the album. His wife died giving birth to his daughter, so it was the only thing he had left of her voice.
Also, the album was titled Yamazakura—which is a pun that not only refers to early-blooming cherry blossoms, but also...buck teeth. Like the ones Fujiyama's wife had, and the ones Smile has.
There was even a cute bit where we see Fujiyama's wife was once-upon-a-time self-conscious about her own teeth, which Fujiyama was able to assuage. D'aww.
Yes, Soda Pop a cockle-warming tale of love told via multiple generations, but more importantly, it's a cautionary tale about how NOT to fix a warped vinyl record.
This scene... oh man, was I cringing the moment I saw Smile notice that the record was warped...
Whippersnappers these days and their lack of antiquated media storage knowledge.
Tho, jokes aside, that scene of Smile trying to glue the record back together is the single most devastating part of the film. I felt so bad for her.
Is it extremely on-the-nose imagery representing Smile trying to "put the pieces" of her broken heart back together after learning that Cherry is moving away? Yes. Yes, it is. It also works really well.
The character acting throughout the film is phenomenal too, which really helps sell a scene like this.
Also extremely good: Smile and Cherry's tiff has a bit where the ambient noises around Cherry raise in volume up until he tearfully slides his headphones back onto his ears. Such a good use of sound editing. Again, super on-the-nose, but so goddamn effective.
Sound is just super important throughout the film! In addition to those nice ambient touches, you've got a soundtrack by kensuke ushio, who's working in his delicate Liz and the Blue Bird-esque mode. And then you've got the film's climax, exquisitely set to the long-awaited "Yamazakura" sung by Fujiyama's wife—which is in reality an insert song sung by city pop legend Taeko Ohnuki. She also gets her own "cameo" in the record shop (and Sunshower is a wonderful album, check it out).
(Yes Virginia, there were other City Pop singers besides Mariya Takeuchi)
Ahem. Anyway, these on-the-nose plot beats needed a good resolution. As it turns out, Fujiyama was right to trawl around the mall in search of his missing record—it was right under everyone's noses the whole time!
Lesser writers would nitpick this, but I love how simple it is and how well it works. I got so excited when I saw the fireworks on the opposite side of the album and we smash-cut to the daycare center with that same image on the clock.
It's also really funny that, after that smash cut, there's still a good 5-10 minutes before the one of the characters realizes it. Ensue lots of me pointing at the screen and calling the characters blind. But hey, it all works out in the end.
I also went back through my screencaps, and sure enough, the clock is prominently featured in the very first shot of the daycare.
That is extremely effective visual storytelling right there.
Anyway, Cherry's family is already leaving town when the gang finds the record, so everyone comes together to make sure Cherry gets to the festival. My boy Beaver comes in with the save in letting his graffiti catch Cherry's eye, writing Cherry's haiku on street signs. DJ Professor K would be proud.
He gets some of the characters wrong, but again, "Yamazakura" is a pun for both teeth and cherries, so it works out. (It's part of a long-running gag where Beaver gets his Japanese homonyms mixed up.)
And similarly, it's hard for me to feel too pedantic about the moving subplot when it leads to this emotionally-swollen climax with friends supporting these big romantic gestures between our leads. I mean, if you're not watching a romance film for schmaltzy stuff like this, I don't know what you're watching for.
The really beautiful part is how Cherry is able to take all of his haiku and turn them into a weird improvised performance. And more of that lovely character acting: he's so impassioned during his recitation, the guy is throwing his body forward. This guy is belting his poetry from the very bottom of his socially-anxious heart.
Freaking superb, you fabulous little nerd, you.
Contrary to his earlier surliness about public speaking, Cherry lets these words—words he's bottled up for the whole film—bubble up and burst out of him. It's a perfect cap on his character arc, just like the unreservedness of Smile's smile.
Also, there's a really really cute bit after the credits, but I'm not spoiling it because it really is that cute. Anyway, yeah, Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is a really freaking cute movie and you definitely should watch it right now.
Super cute. Super fun. A nice uncomplicated summer romance panacea for these trying times. And most importantly, it has the one thing I want out of every anime I watch: good T-shirt typography.
"Uncomplicated" is a really good way to put this movie. It and the characters are all simple, but it's charming and has lots of heart. Even if you know these story beats they're wildly effective and the emotions stick with you. Honestly, check it out.