Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest film is a charming drama revolving around three sisters and their step-sister, and watching it feels as relaxing as sitting in a hot bath for an hour. It won’t be for everyone – Koreeda’s films have a slow pace that is largely out of step with modern cinema, arthouse or otherwise – but for me it makes for a refreshing break from the norm, and it’s a tried-and-tested way of allowing the characters to develop and become three-dimensional, so to speak. The pace also helps in the sense that there’s plenty to contemplate during Our Little Sister‘s carefully-layered scenes of family members eating together or going about their daily lives; there may be little happening on the face of it, but many conversations here are loaded with subtext and the seemingly innocuous scenes in which the characters walk up hills, visit the beach or take fruit from trees subtly contribute to overarching themes regarding companionship and shared memories. Like most of the director’s films to date it revolves around a figure who isn’t actually around any more, in this case the father of the four women, and to a certain degree the mother of the three sisters. And it also shares the aesthetic of his previous films, such as Maborosi, Still Walking and I Wish. This is usually the point in a Koreeda review where the reviewer mentions Ozu, a comparison that will presumably dog the 53-year-old for the remainder of his career, but this time I’ll just say that Hirozaku shares that master director’s wonderful formalist approach with regard to framing shots within traditional Japanese houses, gardens and towns, and what Jonathan Rosenbaum calls Ozu’s ‘absorption in the commonplace’, which suggests a director who ultimately falls into the bracket of ‘social realist’.
Our Little Sister is based on the manga by Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida. The three sisters I mentioned above, in order of age, are Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho), who live together in a house they inherited from their grandmother. The women are aged between 19 and 29 and are very close, though there is some light bickering between Sachi and Yoshino on account of the latter’s liking for heavy drinking and short-term relationships; as Chika later says, though, ‘they’re as thick as thieves’. The girls’ mother and father split many years beforehand when the latter had an affair and left the family home, and it transpires later on that this directly led to the mother’s decision to abandon the girls, who were subsequently raised by their grandmother. When their father dies they meet 14-year-old step-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose) at the funeral, and invite the teenager to live with them in Kamakura. Suzu accepts and begins a new life with her three step-sisters.
Most of the story takes place in the seaside city, which seems more like a small town than a buzzing metropolis. Koreeda usuallys foreground small-town or small-city Japanese life, and here there’s an abundance of local trains, cafes, restaurants and so on, all of which seems to suggest calm, rural charm. The director’s films tend to be set during spring or summer, and this one features the cherry blossom of hanami and the fireworks of hanabi; there’s a brightness to the exterior scenes here that’s typical of the director’s films, and it’s accentuated somewhat by the coastal setting. The beating sun features heavily in one glorious scene, in which Suzu gets a lift on a bike along a street lined with cherry blossom trees, while another scene in which children on a boat watch fireworks is inventively shot from above, so we don’t see the explosions of light but instead see the colours reflected on the water.
You have to look hard for the little details that propel the narrative along during some of the conversations, though I’m not suggesting that Our Little Sister is in any way difficult to follow or to interpret; in fact its simplicity and clarity adds to the overall charm. The three sisters welcome their step-sister, while in a move that goes against dramatic convention Suzu settles quickly in her new high school, makes friends, joins the football team and meets a boy that she likes. Despite this, and despite the shared parent, Suzu feels different to the other women. Suzu is indirectly reminded that she didn’t grow up in the same house, and that she doesn’t share the same history as her step-sisters, and the film balances their disparities with common ground superbly. Eventually, and heart-warmingly, it’s the common ground that wins out: both Suzu and Sachi show each other spots in their home towns that they used to visit with their father, for example; all four share a love of a mackerel dish that was passed on by the same man; and there’s a nice scene in which Suzu’s height is measured and notched on a bed post after she becomes 15, where her name joins those of her step-sisters.
Given the reliance on these four main characters you might think it’s a very inward-looking family drama, but Koreeda does give plenty of time over to their relationships with friends, boyfriends and other residents of the city that they know. There’s a subplot involving doctor Sachi’s affair with a married colleague, which seems bound up with her professional concerns as she takes a new job in a ward for terminally ill patients, while as well as Suzu’s innocent romantic spark with a classmate there’s also a sweet and unresolved thread regarding Chika’s attraction to a colleague she works with in a sports equipment shop. Koreeda’s latest is well-acted, and beautifully-shot at times, but the real draw of Our Little Sister is how honest and free-of-cynicism it is, choosing not to dazzle you with wit or incident but instead concentrating on realistic characters adapting to a realisitc but life-changing scenario. Quiet, yes, but extremely effective and a measured take on loss and readjustment in the wake of a death.
Directed by: Hirokazu Koreeda.
Written by: Hirozaku Koreeda. Based on Umimachi Diary Akimi Yoshida.
Starring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Kirin Kiki, Jun Fubuki, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Shinobu Otake.
Cinematography: Mikiya Takimoto.
Editing: Hirokazu Koreeda.
Music: Yôko Kanno.
Running Time: 127 minutes.