It’s March 2020, and I’m headed to the offices of film distributor Shochiku to speak with Kyohei Ishiguro about his new animated film, “Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop.” I’ve been asked to wear a mask while conducting the interview, a first for me. Arriving a few minutes early, I take a walk through Tsukiji fish market, which is eerily quiet — a month earlier, I would’ve been pushing through throngs of tourists. At this point, the film’s release date of May 15, 2020, is still on, with the hope that this whole COVID-19 situation will blow over by then.

Of course, things did not work out that way.

Over a year later, “Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” is set to hit theaters in Japan (and Netflix accounts elsewhere) on July 22. Set in a rural Japanese town, the story largely takes place at the local mall, which forms the town’s social hub. One mallrat is Cherry (Ichikawa Somegoro VIII, real name Itsuki Fujima), a shy 17-year-old boy who expresses himself through the haiku he posts online. There’s also Smile (Hana Sugisaki), a girl about Cherry’s age. Sociable and outgoing, Smile is a popular YouTuber — but she’s also self-conscious about her teeth, so she always wears a white surgical mask (she’d fit in just fine these days).

Cherry and Smile meet cute one summer and, as their friendship inches toward something more, they learn to overcome their respective social hurdles, and even help an elderly former record shop owner, Fujiyama (Koichi Yamadera), solve the mystery of a long-lost vinyl record connected to his past.

According to Ishiguro, the role of music in “Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” is what motivated him to take on the project.

“I didn’t really grow up interested in making anime,” says the director, who counts anime series like “Your Lie in April” (2014-15) and “Children of the Whales” (2017) among his credits. “I was much more interested in being a musician.”

His career path eventually led him away from music and into the director’s chair, but Ishiguro was always interested in putting music front and center in his work. That made “Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop,” produced to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Flying Dog, a label that specializes in music for anime, a perfect fit. It didn’t hurt that co-writer Dai Sato (“Cowboy Bebop”) was also a huge music fan.

“Our tastes really matched,” Ishiguro says. “In terms of storytelling, we both like to pepper in some humor, even in serious moments. And we both have backgrounds in music. He co-founded the techno label Frogman Records, and I played in bands throughout high school and university. Those backgrounds really helped get our conversations going.”

Keep your records on: Director Kyohei Ishiguro, who was interested in becoming a musician when he was younger, made sure to pack 'Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop' with musical elements.
Keep your records on: Director Kyohei Ishiguro, who was interested in becoming a musician when he was younger, made sure to pack ‘Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop’ with musical elements.

Music isn’t just a part of the story in “Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop,” it also influenced the film’s look. The vivid, poppy art style, Ishiguro says, was inspired by the 1980s pop art of Eizin Suzuki. Suzuki illustrated, among other things, the album covers of Tatsuro Yamashita, a musician and producer at the forefront of city pop, the genre now famous worldwide thanks to “Plastic Love” (performed, not-so-incidentally, by Yamashita’s wife and creative partner Mariya Takeuchi). Ishiguro is clearly smitten with the city pop aesthetic: He even brought a Yamashita picture disc, one of those LPs with art printed on the disc itself, to the interview to show it off (it was 1982’s “For You”).

“Recent anime is full of detail,” Ishiguro explains. “It’s almost photo-realistic. I don’t hate that style but, for me, silhouette-like images have more impact. That leads me to whittle the detail down and express characters more simply, using fewer and fewer lines. That’s where the looks of these ’80s records came in. I decided to take the Eizin Suzuki look and arrange it to create the look of the film. For me, that simple silhouette look is key.”

Before you get the impression that “Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” is nothing but style, be assured there’s plenty of substance, too. I ask Ishiguro to compare and contrast the two main characters, Smile and Cherry, whose relationship forms the core of the film.

“They both want to express themselves, and have others know more about them, but are embarrassed at the same time,” Ishiguro says. “They both have their own complexes. For Cherry, he has trouble expressing his feelings out loud. For Smile, it’s visual. One day, she starts to dislike a part of her appearance she thought was cute before.”

But by falling in love, and being praised for the things they lack confidence in, both characters start to accept themselves for who they are.

“By communicating with each other, and freeing each other from their complexes, the goodness of their humanity comes forth,” Ishiguro says. “That’s something I really want people to take away from the film.”

Another message Ishiguro wants viewers to take away is the value of connecting with your elders. In the film, Cherry and Smile have part-time jobs at an elder care facility, and by meeting patients like Fujiyama, they discover different ways of thinking, more about their town’s history, and what a large grooved disc called a “record” is.

“I did a lot of research on that point,” Ishiguro says. “I called my lots of friends with kids in their teens … some of them had heard of records, but none of them had actually seen one.”

By the end of “Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop,” viewers of all ages will be well aware of what records are — and how, as their name implies, they can sometimes serve as a record of an important moment in someone’s life.

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” will be released in theaters in Japan and streamed outside the country on Netflix starting July 22. For more information, visit http://cider-kotoba.jp.

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