Tetsurō Araki, famous for his anime series Attack on Titan and his Netflix film Death Note, took a noticeably lighter turn with his latest creation: Bubble. Part love story, part existential struggle, Bubble tells the tale of post-apocalyptic Tokyo, which suffered from a strange celestial disaster that made the city uninhabitable.
The movie’s plot takes many turns and the ending is a little cryptic, which can make the movie difficult to understand. Luckily, we’ve got the answers. This article will analyze, calculate, disentangle and decode all of the essential details required to understand the deeply nuanced and convoluted story of Bubble. What happened? Why did it happen? What did any of it mean? This article contains all of the answers.
What is the significance of the bubble explosion?
There are two different ways to think of the apocalyptic bubble disaster that struck Tokyo. There is the plot explanation (which is really just a bunch of scientific jargon we hear from Makoto at the beginning of the movie) and the thematic explanation. The thematic reading is much more interesting, but let’s set the table with the plot explanation first.
The Plot Explanation
As a refresher, here’s what Makoto says at the beginning of the movie:
“Five years ago, bubbles fell all over the world. The bubbles had mysterious powers, and their arrival brought about pandemonium. Soon after, a huge explosion of uncertain origin occurred in the center of Tokyo. Tokyo became ground zero, and was enclosed in a gigantic bubble. Even after the bubbles stopped falling elsewhere in the world, the phenomenon continued solely in the center of Tokyo. By the time the accumulated bubbles surrounding the area burst and turned into water, Tokyo was no longer the capital of Japan. Scientists from across the globe came to do research in Tokyo, but none were able to determine the cause of the Bubble-Fall Phenomenon. Little by little, the people of Tokyo left their home behind. It now stands as a shell of its former self. An abandoned city. Tokyo became a resident prohibited zone.”
That speech lays it out pretty simply. And as we move forward, other elements will be introduced, like the vortexes and the spiderwebs, which are inexplicable forces that consume anyone that falls into them.
So sure, it’s nice that the movie outlines the exposition necessary for the cataclysmic event that struck Tokyo. But it’s what that event did to the people living in Tokyo that becomes the thematic impetus of the movie.
The Thematic Explanation
“Over time, boys began illegally residing in the area. They ignored countless orders to leave, and started participating in a dangerous game that made use of the unique environment. They’re orphans who lost their loved one due to the Bubble-Fall Phenomenon.”
Here, Bubble takes us from the macro to the sub-macro. Scientists are concerned with the meteorological impact of the Bubble-Fall Phenomenon, but the societal impact was huge. The disaster left many of the youth in Tokyo displaced. But instead of fleeing from the now-decimated land of Tokyo, these youth were drawn to the city. Like them, the former capital of Japan was abandoned by society. And now they are forced to make it on their own.
There are obvious correlations you can make to the modern youth of Japan. Several studies (take this one for example) have noted that Japanese youth have gravitated away from “typical Japanese motivational patterns but have not necessarily become more Western.” As a result, “this poses serious problems in an interdependence-oriented culture.” Because of these generational gaps, Japan can feel like it’s currently in limbo from a cultural perspective. Thus, the Tokyo of Bubble becomes a symbolic representation of the current state of affairs. The youth feels abandoned in a gigantic city that is quickly changing and no longer recognizable.
Makoto elaborates on this disconnect, which continually repeats itself throughout human history. While Uta is reading and looking at photos, trying her best to understand the world, Makato says:
“It’s said that the world repeatedly collapses and rebuilds. Assembles. Bursts. Scatters. Then, assembles again.”
In this moment, a shot of war and destruction taking place on Earth dissolves into a photo of the universe. Once again, Araki is visually connecting the macro and the micro here. Makoto continues:
“Our Milky Way galaxy. It’ll collide with Andromeda in about 4.5 billion years. Then it will burst. And once again…”
Hibiki then interrupts with: “It’s going to scatter apart?”
Makato: “Bingo. And the elements that make up our bodies will again come together, to become materials for another star.”
Do I have to say it again? OK: macro vs. micro. These large struggles we experience on a societal level are part of a pattern. But those large struggles seem small in comparison to the Milky Way galaxy colliding with Andromeda. Which makes our individual struggles within those societal struggles seem completely banal and insignificant.
Enter Hibiki, who becomes the movie’s representative of that uprooted Japanese youth. He is a quiet, brooding, despondent individual who’s been trying to make sense of his existence since the Bubble-Fall Phenomenon struck.
Here’s the last part of Makoto’s speech at the beginning of the movie:
“One of the boys claims he is able to hear the sound of songs emanating from the tower. The cloud that now covers the tower, the center of the blast, contains a complex gravity field. Observations cannot be made inside of the cloud, regardless of equipment, and there are constant unscientific rumors, such as ghosts existing inside the clouds.”
Now we’ve gone from macro to sub-macro to micro—from global to societal to individual. Hibiki is trying to figure out who he is and why he hears this song and what it could mean if he could just discover the source of this song. In a world where nothing is provided for him, where there are vortexes and spiderwebs that can swallow him whole and end everything, where he feels abandoned and displaced…this song is everything. It’s all that matters. It’s his key to finding solace and making sense of everything that’s happened to him. It’s his chance to establish a true connection—whether it’s personal or ethereal—in a world where he has nobody left.
And that connection comes in the form of Uta.
What/who is Uta? What does she represent?
We don’t know exactly what race/species Uta is. But she definitely isn’t human. All we know is that she appeared when the bubble explosion happened in Tokyo. She was one of the bubbles, and she took human form.
The “bubble” also carries immense thematic implications that coincide with Hibiki’s struggle to find peace in this apocalyptic space he now resides. The very beginning of the movie starts with a shot of a bubble. We then zoom into the bubble, which becomes the universe. Then an intense zoom-in takes us through the universe, into the Milky Way galaxy, then to planet Earth, then to Japan, then to Hibiki drowning in the waters of Tokyo.
Once again, we’ve gone from a very macro setting to a very micro setting. From a plot perspective, we can assume that this giant bubble traveled through the universe and then collided with Earth. Then all of the inhabitants of the giant bubble dispersed into thousands of tinier bubbles that now make up Tokyo.
But we must also consider the thematic connection between the greater powers of the universe and individual people. Araki visually sets up this dynamic right away, letting us know that the micro and the macro are connected. He starts with something small and insignificant like a bubble. Then that bubble becomes as immense as the universe. And then we eventually make our way to Hibiki, who has an interaction with a bubble that births Uta. While drowning, one of Hibiki’s air bubbles collides with Uta, who is in the form of her bubble self. This creates her human form, which takes the shape of a woman in an advertisement nearby.
As we’ll come to learn, Uta was the one singing the song that Hibiki heard from the skyscraper on the day of the Bubble-Fall Phenomenon. She is the reason that Hibiki tries so hard to penetrate the gravity field that was contained at the center of the original bubble blast. He knows some sort of answer awaits him in that ambiguous space.
So on a broader, symbolic level, Uta represents a universal struggle we can all relate to. We often feel displaced in this world, and making sense of our existence and role in the grand scheme of things can feel daunting. Our ability to cope, to find meaning, to become an important piece in that gargantuan puzzle often comes in the form of something that feels small in comparison. And in the case of Bubble, it comes in the form of love.
Obviously you can think of the connection Hibiki shares with Uta as a romantic love between two people. But remember: Uta represents part of Hibiki’s individual, spiritual struggle to find meaning and inner peace. The closer he becomes with her, the closer he comes to understanding himself and his purpose. So their love isn’t necessarily the kind of love you’d find with your soulmate here on Earth—it’s much bigger than that.
In fact, this seems to be the main reason Araki sets up a connection between Uta and The Little Mermaid. This connection also explains what happens at the end of the movie.
The ending of Bubble explained
The Little Mermaid is obviously an animated Disney film that came out in 1989. But decades before that, in 1837 to be exact, the original version of the story was written by Hans Christian Andersen. The Danish fairy tale tells the story of a young, beautiful mermaid who, at the age of 15, is allowed to take human form and visit planet Earth for 365 days. While on land, she falls in love with a handsome prince and saves him from drowning.
At one point, the Little Mermaid learns that while humans have a much shorter lifespan, they also have eternal souls and get to reside in Heaven when they die. Mermaids, on the other hand, turn into seafoam at their death and cease to exist. Armed with a strong desire to become human and be with the prince, the Little Mermaid visits a Sea Witch and receives a potion that will give her human legs. But the potion comes at a cost, as the Little Mermaid loses her beautiful singing voice and it will feel like she’s constantly walking on knives.
But here’s the kicker, and the main tension of the story: as part of the deal with the Sea Witch, the Little Mermaid is only able to obtain a human soul if she wins the love of the prince and marries him, which will cause his soul to flow into her. Otherwise, she will turn to seafoam.
And guess what? The prince actually decides to marry someone else. Which means the Little Mermaid is doomed.
Until her sisters strike a deal with the Sea Witch. In exchange for their long, beautiful hair, the Sea Witch gives them a special dagger. If the Little Mermaid kills the prince and lets the blood drip onto feet, she will become a mermaid once more and live.
The Little Mermaid, however, cannot bring herself to do it, and instead throws herself onto the dagger. Her body then dissolves into seafoam. But instead of ceasing to exist, she becomes a “Daughter of the Air.” She becomes one of many earthbound spirits that perform good deeds on Earth. Because of their selflessness, they earn the opportunity to rise to Heaven after 300 years.
So…yeah. You can see the connection, right? The Little Mermaid isn’t a love story about a mermaid and a prince falling in love. It’s a story about one woman’s selflessness in the pursuit of love. She loves the prince so much that she gives up happiness on Earth and her chance to ascend to Heaven in order to make him happy.
There are obvious correlations to Bubble. When Hibiki first sees Uta, he calls her a mermaid. She dissolves into seafoam whenever Hibiki touches her. And she has a moment with her sister when she enters the gravity field. Uta is part of an outside race that has an interaction with humankind, and in the end must sacrifice herself to preserve one man’s happiness. She does it out of love.
The connection with The Little Mermaid becomes even more pronounced when we consider her speech at the end of the movie. As Hibiki holds her and tries to bring her to safety, we hear her say:
“The Little Mermaid was so happy just being there. She cherished those days more than anything. Even more, she realized, than her own life. So even though she fully understood her body was rapidly turning into seafoam, fear was a complete stranger to her.”
But for Bubble, the story of The Little Mermaid is reversed. While the Little Mermaid’s struggle reflects Uta’s, we end up taking the perspective of the prince in the form of Hibiki. So instead of Bubble being about Uta and her relationship with the bubble world, the film is instead about what Uta’s sacrifice means for Hibiki. More than romantic love, Hibiki requires a spiritual awakening that will break him out of his existential funk. Which means that their “love” is destined to take the same route as the prince and the Little Mermaid’s love: it could never be. Because the story is about something much larger than romance—it’s about connection. The spiritual, ethereal, unexplainable connections in our lives that come to define who we are.
This puts the some of the final words we hear from Uta into context:
“It’s because I met you. So that I could be the me I wanted to be. This is the human heart. It’s a heart that’s able to feel loneliness. A heat that feels happiness and pain and true love.”
So in the end, Uta becomes a “Daughter of the Air.” She dissolves and ceases to exist in human form, and instead becomes a ghostly, intangible presence on Earth. You can’t see her, but you can hear her song in the bubbles. Even Makato senses Uta’s presence at the end of the movie.
That becomes the significance of the final shot. Hibiki may not have found his true love, but he did find something much more important. As he participates in the parkour competition, he has a smile on his face. He’s finally happy to be part of a team. He’s no longer a loner who broods about his existence in an apocalyptic world, and instead part of a larger, growing society that’s trying to rebuild. By tending to himself spiritually, he’s become an important piece of that society puzzle. He’s ready to be part of the world.
This ties the individual to the societal, to the universal. After Hibiki brings Uta to the surface and she dissolves into seafoam, she says:
“The cycle of collapse and rebirth continues. From the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, the elements which make up our bodies have reassembled again and again. They become stars, burn out, contract, and shoot out into the universe. Gathering in a vortex, they mix together and later scatter apart. Someday when this comes to an end and the earth ceases to exist, perhaps we too will once again become part of a massive vortex.”
In this moment, a shot of a flower dissolves to a shot of wind patterns on Earth to a grand shot of the universe to a shot of the seashell Hibiki gave Uta. “Time will tell. Let’s meet again someday.”
Just like the beginning of the movie, a series of shots connects the larger-than-life events of the universe with individual struggles. We might just be a small part of the universe, but each and every one of us plays a role in the continual death and rebirth the universe experiences. Discovering that truth can make you feel small. But it can also make you feel really, really big. And important. It can make you feel like your life matters.