If people outside Japan have heard of Chichibu, a rustic, mountainous city about two hours northwest of Tokyo, it’s probably thanks to director Tatsuyuki Nagai, screenwriter Mari Okada and character designer Masayoshi Tanaka. The trio put Chichibu on the map by making it the setting for their hit 2011 coming-of-age anime series “Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day.” Fans of that series scrambled to the otherwise quiet city, giving it a second life as an anime tourism hotspot.

The three creatives followed up “Anohana” with another Chichibu-set story of youth in 2015 with the theatrical “The Anthem of the Heart.” They’ve done it yet again with “Her Blue Sky,” but it’s obvious the idea’s creative returns are increasingly diminishing. What’s the opposite of “third time’s the charm”?

“Her Blue Sky” centers around Akane and Aoi Aioi (Riho Yoshioka and Shion Wakayama, respectively), two sisters born about 13 years apart. Their parents died when Akane was in high school, forcing her to abandon dreams of moving to Tokyo and instead raise Aoi — much to the dismay of her boyfriend, rock guitarist Shinnosuke (Ryo Yoshizawa).

Her Blue Sky (Sora no Aosa o Shiru Hito Yo)
Run Time 108 mins.
Opens OCT. 11

Fast forward 13 years, and Aoi is a high school student and aspiring rock bassist, determined to leave for Tokyo and go pro, just like Shinnosuke — who, after 13 years, finally reappears in Chichibu as the guitarist for a traveling enka band. He’s made it as a guitarist, technically, but it’s not exactly the rock career he’d imagined, and the chip on his shoulder has turned him into a sullen jerk. The headstrong, optimistic Shinnosuke of the past seems to be gone forever.

Or maybe not. Practicing bass, Aoi suddenly finds herself face to face with the Shinnosuke of 13 years ago, a time-traveling spirit born at the traumatic moment he and Akane split up. The reason for the spirit’s appearance here and now is, the two decide, to make sure the grown-up Shinnosuke and Akane get back together (they are both 31, after all, practically elderly in anime terms). But things get complicated when Aoi has a falling out with Akane — and starts to develop feelings for the ghostly, high school version of Shinnosuke.

A spirit he may be, but the young Shinnosuke brings the most energy of the bunch, not to mention the fascinating philosophical question: What if you met your future self and he or she was, well, kind of disappointing? Points to Yoshizawa for embodying both the young, happy-go-lucky Shinnosuke and his burnt-out, woe-is-me older counterpart.

The other conflict in the film is between Aoi and Akane: The former feels guilty for burdening her older sister, but ends up expressing that guilt through resentment. Rare is the teenager, after all, who can properly express her feelings. But like many Mari Okada-penned works, the characters ultimately open up, perhaps too much, explicitly putting many of the film’s themes into words as swelling music plays in the background in its final minutes.

Like “Anohana” and “The Anthem of the Heart,” “Her Blue Sky” blends Chichibu, magical realism and angst into a formula that feels like it’s in danger of becoming formulaic. Yes, there are writers and directors who spend their entire careers successfully delving deeper into the same places and themes. But “Her Blue Sky” feels more like a retread than a rediscovery

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.