Monmon: Aah! What a gem of a movie. Too bad I found it at the end of its theater run.
Life is hard. Especially for those who wanted to make their own mark on the world. To fulfil their dream. It has always been teenagers who dream of striving for something bigger than themselves. Bigger than the town they lived in. Reality is always different from anyone’s predictions. When the dream becomes unreachable, all the steps that were taken becomes a burden and the enthusiasm that drives them forward becomes regret. While some are able to reach their dreams, they only reach it after a long time wading around in the darkness. ‘Her Blue Sky’ or ‘Sora no Aosa o Shiru Hito yo’ is a movie about life, dreams, and regrets in a Japanese countryside town of Chichibu.
Many years before the present, in a countryside town surrounded by mountains, a group of teenagers are creating music as a band. The guitar lead, Shinnosuke Kanamuro, has a girlfriend, Akane Aioi, who is always with her beloved baby sister, Aoi Aioi. Shinnosuke has ambitions to travel to Tokyo to kick start his music career and wanted Akane to follow him. However, tragedy struck the Aioi sisters. Their parents died in an accident and Akane is left with the role of taking care of her sister, Aoi. Because of her tragic situation, Akane declines Shinnosuke’s invitation in favor of looking after Aoi. In the end, Shinnosuke sets out to Tokyo alone, leaving behind Akane to take care of Aioi.
Thirteen years past, Aoi is now an angsty teenager and who plays the bass guitar. Akane has grown up to be a reliable woman who works at the town council. Akane is nearing the end of her last high school year and she is determined to start a musical career in Tokyo. The teachers, adults and even Akane tried to convince Aioi into going to college first but Aioi is adamant in her decision to leave the town pursue her dream. Aioi retreats to her refuge, the old house where Shinnosuke and his band play their songs and hang out with Aioi and Akane. As she release her frustration through playing her bass guitar, an angry voice calls out in response to the loud noises. Aioi turns around in surprise to find Shinnosuke from thirteen years ago sitting next to her.
Freaked out by the bizarre situation, Aioi runs away to her home. She asks Akane if she had heard from Shinnosuke lately, but Akane tells her that she has not contacted him since he left town. From that response, Aioi decides to keep the matter of ‘Shinnosuke from thirteen years ago appearing in the old hang out’ to herself. Then another issue has popped up. The council has decided to revitalize the town through tourism and hired a travelling enka band to star in the town’s promotional campaign. And that enka band just so happens to be arriving later tonight. Thus, Akane and Aioi is urged to welcome the enka band at the train station. However, the enka band appeared in a grand performance display from a bus behind them. And playing the guitar on the side is.. A 31 year old Shinnosuke, looking a bit worse for wear.
What a peculiar situation. The real, 31 year old Shinnosuke is right here and the 18 year old Shinnosuke; let’s call him ‘Shinno’; is back in the old group hangout. This movie features a glimpse of the traditional Japanese fantasy and how it moved people into taking steps to change their life. That’s right. Only a glimpse. Because the ones that takes the center stage are the characters and the fantasy elements are given the back seat. The only fantasy element, the 18 year old Shinno, is an important piece in the story. Yet what’s important is not how Shinno came to be, nor is the spiritual forces that made him appear, but his perspective and values that Shinnosuke held on to thirteen years ago.
As such, there isn’t much focus of fantasy and adventure. The movie centers on internal reflection, character development and interaction, the presentation of different perspectives and the conflict between them, and the life lessons that come with all of it. To put it simply, drama. The good drama, where all the characters are sound and relatable; and the story touches on tough life topics from the view of a teenager and an adult. And these views are mainly expressed by the main cast of characters. Strong views often clash with each other, creating drama. And with the sharing of opinions, they grow and learn, often discovering something new or remembering something forgotten. Aoi is a teenager with a whole lot of angst and ego. Akane is a mature woman who always keeps a strong front. Shinno is a teen with bright aspirations and strong positive values. Shinnosuke on the other hand is a polar opposite, a washed up adult with a selfish and pessimistic look of the world. For each of them, there is so much to learn, discover and remember. An amazing treat to enjoy in this movie.
It’s not only the main characters that gets all the attention and detail. The side characters are all fleshed out with their own unique personality, traits and ambitions. These side characters do not revolve around the main cast and have their own lives outside the movie screen. Their actions are natural and genuine feelings can be derived from them, hinting the audience about their own dreams and desires. Sometimes they serve to bring the plot forward, but they do it through natural interactions that would bring about events to push the story.
Setting aside the characters, let’s focus on the life topics touch on by the movie. The harsh reality of striving for your dreams be it technical, hard work, networking support, or even just pure luck. The weight of making a life changing decision for the sake of a loved one. The suffocation that comes from expectations and comparisons tacked on by people and the longing to escape all that and be free. Quite heavy topics displayed very realistically by the characters through a flurry of dreams, feelings and regret. This movie handled these topics exceptionally without missing a beat. This movie pulled off a miracle.
But what’s life without some comedy? The comedy is sparse in a serious movie like this but the select scenes when tensions are low are pretty funny. It’s not slapstick comedy but rather situational comedy. The characters are behaving normally but certain circumstances will setup a scene that results in a comical reaction of a character. Another comical scene is a conversation between two characters where one is seriously talking but the topic is pretty outrageous that the other is just listening dumbstruck. Having already made familiar with the characters, those scene squeeze a few snickers from me.
As for the animation and art quality, while it pales in comparison with the top tier anime movies produced by studios with large budgets, Her Blue Sky is still high up there in terms of quality. The character design is top class. Each character is distinct from each other while maintaining a consistent level of realism. The design of the face and hair is absolutely amazing. The character is design with their personalities in mind, giving a face and hair that compliments the character, breathing more life into the character.
The background scenes that features the scenery of the town of Chichibu gives a cozy laidback atmosphere of a countryside town. However, some corners were noticeably cut in making the backgrounds of the movie; most likely to save production costs. While important scenes are traditionally drawn, a significant portion of the movie scenes are actual photos that is redrawn. It is redrawn in a ‘brush stroke’ way, giving a blurred effect that is jarring when compared to the traditionally drawn scenes. There are times where they used it in a wide panning shot that are suspiciously longer than required; as if to pad the movie length. For me, it is a step back in art quality and I always made a difficult face when those ‘brush stroke’ backgrounds appear center screen.
Nonetheless, there is one scene at the beginning of the movie where rotoscope animation is used brilliantly. Rotoscope animation is an animation technique where animators trace over live footage, frame by frame, to produce animated frames that look more realistic. Rotoscoping has been used time and again in anime, but its failures tend to precede it. In ‘Her Blue Sky’, rotoscoping is notably done on one scene where Aioi plays the bass guitar. The fluid actions of her fingers that coincide with the music played is so brilliant that it immersed me into the movie. That scene with spectacular detail and execution is one of my memorable scenes in the movie.
Now, there are notable criticism from some viewers of the movie. While they are generally positive, they do point out that the characters are ‘not fleshed out’ or ‘not developed’. I’m here to say that those assumptions are wrong. One might think that there is little character development is understandable. Most of the character development is delivered subtly and requires a little thinking on the viewer’s part. Minute actions like small instances of facial expressions, body language, and nuances in ones’ actions and words. These mostly unnoticeable things tell their own story, giving the movie necessary exposition without blatantly showing it. Thus, viewers who watch the movie superficially or are too occupied in reading the subtitles (heh) would overlook these things and miss out on a significant part of the movie. Subtle hints and hidden meaning in things that not everyone gets unless they pay a whole lot of attention and understanding. That’s real life. For me, who has gone through life struggles and is familiar with this experience, the movie really struck home.
This is a true gem of a movie. The movie is hardly released in theaters anywhere outside of Japan. What an unfortunate fate of obscurity. I should appreciated my meager luck for I just happen to come across it showing in a local theater a week in. This movie is in the drama genre, with a smidge of other genres like, fantasy, romance and comedy. Not slice of life. More like a full dose of life. Watch this movie if you chance upon it. This movie is good for a repeat watch, so you could catch those subtle moods and expressions. It won’t thrill you like a blockbuster anime movie would, but it will give you an earnest look at the struggles of growing up and being a grown up.
On a final note, I leave you a memorable quote from the movie. Written by Akane when she was a teenager, it said, “The frog in the well knows nothing of the great ocean, but it knows how blue the sky is.” Here’s my interpretation: “Life and the world around you is vast and mysterious, but your knowledge, memories and skills are only owned by you.”
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