Released internationally in 2021, Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop somehow slipped under my radar. I expect that it would have gone down a storm in cinemas and at film festivals, but presumably for pandemic reasons it was instead quietly added to the Netflix catalogue with relatively little fanfare (it’s not been discussed very widely in the fan community either, with one or two honourable exceptions). While I’m glad to see it available on a major streaming platform, this delightful little gem really deserves more attention because it’s one of the most endearing animated films that I’ve seen in years.
It was originally intended to mark the tenth anniversary of Victor Entertainment’s “Flying Dog” record label, which might explain the music-themed premise…and the product placement of a pair of JVC-branded headphones; unusual for the anime industry, which often avoids copyright issues with “Wacdonalds” burger restaurants and “Mindows” PCs.
The two teenagers at the centre of events – introverted poet Yui “Cherry” Sakura and wannabe livestreamer Yuki – strike up an unlikely friendship following a mobile phone-related mishap at their local shopping mall. They soon decide to hang out together, and this sets them on the path to potential romance while solving a small local mystery surrounding the origins and whereabouts of a vintage vinyl record that holds immense sentimental value to a mutual acquaintance.
This is pretty standard for romcoms whether they’re animated or otherwise, but …Soda Pop has so much personality and feelgood energy that I was having too much fun to care: it’s a perfect example of simple things done well. While some plot points such as the minutiae of haiku poetry don’t easily translate, it’s generally so accessible and engaging that the personal issues and wider themes feel new yet somehow familiar.
Part of its magic comes from the bold primary-colours visuals, which took a bit of getting used to at first. I must be spoiled by all those years of lush watercolour backgrounds and hyper-realism of Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda, because Soda Pop initially felt low-budget and less detailed in comparison. One particularly well-executed early scene however, which sets up the meet-cute moment, makes amazing use of movement to wonderful comedic effect, and it worked just fine for me from that point on.
Director Kyouhei Ishiguro has experience with adolescent slice-of-life through the coming-of-age drama Wandering Son and the music-themed teen romance Your Lie in April, but another crucial ingredient I think was the screenwriting input of Dai Sato. Between the two of them, this otherwise everyday tale feels fresh and meaningful, with confidence to the storytelling and brilliant little details that you wouldn’t normally expect to be included in a 90-minute feature.
Yui is clearly introverted and socially anxious, but we also see his thoughtful and kind side as he volunteers to fill in for his mother’s shifts at a local elderly day care centre. Similarly, Yuki breaks the mould in that she doesn’t fit the shallow narcissistic online streamer/influencer stereotype: she enjoys sharing her excitement at seeing cute or interesting things, and eagerly throws herself into helping him take care of the old folks and seek out the elusive record as they get to know each other. Overall, they’re a pair of ordinary yet thoroughly likeable young people who are curious about the world around them and, by extension, each other.
The strength of the writing is also evident in the film’s over-arching theme of the old and new existing side by side. Yui’s and Yuki’s respective interests – the strict format of traditional haiku poetry and the spontaneous high-tech energy of online vlogging – are the most obvious contrast, but it comes up again when old and young members of the local community mingle in the local mall, and the bright new shops are shown in stark contrast to Mr Fujiyama’s retro record store. Then there’s the romantic backstory and a wider shared local history, which ties together the Fujiyama family, the origins of the mall, and the mystery subplot that makes up the middle third of the movie.
A short conversation that Yui has with his father also reveals that he uses his dad’s old haiku dictionary, despite admitting that an app on his phone would be just as convenient; this and his volunteer job offer small windows into the relationships between parents and child. Yuki too is shown interacting with her own family, as her parents good-naturedly banter about using smartphones at the dinner table and her two sisters offer moral support over her insecurities. Most stand-alone feature films don’t find time for moments like this, so it’s credit to the production team that they bring the supporting cast to life without slowing the pacing or drawing attention away from the protagonists.
The screenplay feels remarkably cohesive, but it’s also full of energy and life. Perhaps this wouldn’t have felt like such a big deal if many of us hadn’t been spending the last two full years in uneventful isolation, but it was heartwarming to see the distinctive vibe of adolescent romance captured so vividly. It also has a strong sense of place, with background art and supporting characters that highlight its Gunma prefecture setting (a real place, I believe), as well as the countless little relatable moments. I don’t just mean in terms of Yui’s “how do I socialise…?” hesitance, now experienced by millions of us after venturing out of lockdown. Nor Yuki’s embarrassment at having to wear braces on her teeth, although that too is an awkward memory that many of us experienced in our own teenage years.
Ultimately, it’s the much-needed reminders of the connections with the people around us, acknowledging how the past is still relevant while appreciating the present, and how small joys can come from just being curious and interested in the little things that make each of us happy. Whether Yui and Yuki are rummaging through an old record store, discussing hobbies and interests or just spending time together, it gave me a recurring sensation of, “isn’t it just…nice that this is still a thing?” while I watched it. Given the state of *gestures vaguely at pretty much everything going on right now* I can’t think of a more appropriate time to experience a movie that reminds me of that.