'Our Little Sister'
In a summer full of explosions, swears, and giant CGI entertainment comes a little bit of Japanese counterprogramming that couldn’t be further from the blockbuster norm. That’s just not how director Hirokazu Kore-eda works. He makes small films about small moments that amount to big emotions. There are few times in his latest feature ‘Our Little Sister’ where the tempo raises above meander or the tone gets any louder than a quiet conversation. However, within that subtle style, the filmmaker creates a rather magical experience.
It’s a moving film that develops its power over time and through its carefully controlled and created characters. Certainly, it’s not a movie for the masses, but for those who appreciate the quiet things, there’s incredible power in this low-key drama.
The story is about three sisters accepting a fourth. Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho) are all young women who still live in their grandmother’s home where they were raised. She’s long since passed and the sisters all have their own lives, but they keep the quiet traditions of the house alive and have formed a strong bond. One day, they leave their home to attend their estranged father’s funeral. It’s an odd experience given that they don’t particularly feel like they knew him, but being balanced and capable adults they travel to the small village where he lived out his final years. There they meet Suzu (Suzu Hirose), their 15-year-old half-sister whom he sired with another woman shortly after abandoning their family. Suzu was essentially robbed of her childhood to care for her elderly father, and so the young women decide to adopt her and give her the family she never had. The bulk of the film is spent admiring that transition. Tensions arise, both of the moment and from the past, but the overall tone is one of loving acceptance.
The film is based on a popular manga titled ‘Umimachi Diary’, which was always far more quiet, contemplative and reality-driven that that style of comic book is known for. Even in adapting an already low-key story, Kore-eda (‘Still Walking‘) has removed many of the spiky, melodramatic edges. It’s as if he loves the characters too much to put them through pain. That’s not to say the story has no darkness. After all, it springs from death and the sisters all have complicated emotions regarding their once shattered family. The appearance of their equally absent mother in the final third is particularly filled with bitter memories and longing regret. Even in that one moment where the filmmaker could have his characters lash out and explode, he doesn’t. This is a tale of bonds, both deep seated and newly formed. It’s a celebration of relationships and their supportive power, no matter how unconventional the origin. That may not be the most dramatic subject matter and doesn’t necessarily serve up much conflict, but the film’s overwhelmingly lovely tone has its own seductive power. It’s hard not to smile and let even the bitterest heart be warmed.
Performances are strong across the board. The images are always carefully framed and strikingly lit (particularly a gorgeous bike ride through a tunnel of cherry blossoms). The problems that pop up are primarily the result of pacing and structure. Adapted from several volumes of an ongoing series, the film feels episodic and lacks a cohesive structure. It seems to start and stop and then start again. The pace is also slow, at times even glacial and with few peaks of energy above a leisurely stroll to the finish line. Given that the movie tips in at over two hours, it can be a bit much at times. Even so, the movie is just so charming and subtly moving that it’s hard not to embrace it. If you want to leave the theater feeling like you’ve just had a big satisfying hug that reassured you everything will be OK, this is the one.