Our Little Sister delivers all of the things that we’ve come to expect from Hirokazu Kore-eda—family melodrama, shot through with beautiful compositions and restrained acting—so it would be easy to underestimate the power and quality of this film. The gentle pacing and careful approach to character means that Our Little Sister’s emotional resonance sneaks up on the viewer rather than overpowering him or her up front. It masks the fact that the film addresses very difficult emotional situations: love, loss, forgiveness, and fortitude in the face of death.
Our Little Sister (Umimachi diary) tells the story of three sisters who have all lived together in their traditional-style Japanese house since their father left their mother years ago for another woman. Sachi (Haruka Ayase), the eldest sister, keeps the family together and acts as the de facto parent; Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), the middle sister, negotiates her career and various romantic relationships, while the youngest sister, Chika (Kaho), is free-spirited and seemingly carefree. When they learn that their father has died, the sisters attend his funeral where they meet their 13-year-old half-sister, Suzu (Suzu Hirose), who has been left with her new stepmother. In an uncharacteristic act of generosity and open-heartedness, Sachi invites their newly discovered sister to live with them and Suzu accepts.
What happens when Suzu moves in with her three adult sisters and the way her presence disrupts the balance of the sisters’ lives and stirs old family pain makes up the main source of conflict in the film. Suzu is welcomed by her sisters and proves to be a wonderful addition to their lives, fitting into their seaside town and coming into her own in many ways; but her existence also serves to remind them of their father’s abandonment of the family and all the effects that had on their individual lives and the structure of the family and community.
Kore-eda’s subtlety is a virtue here, as the film avoids becoming an overt tear-jerker or emotionally manipulative like one could expect from this kind of story. But the power of the film is very real, the performances from all the sisters and the townspeople (including the gently humorous Franky Lily as the owner of a local café specializing in whitefish on toast) playing off of each other and illuminating the way that we carry the history of our families and communities in our actions. Thematically, the absences speak as loudly as words, the legacy of the absent father shaping the lives of this all-female family as much as the dead mother does the lives of the daughter and father in Ozu’s Late Spring.
Our Little Sister isn’t a melancholy film, but it is about very weighty subjects. Fortunately Kore-eda treats the subjects with such a light touch, the film floats by enjoyably for its run time, drawing you into the character’s lives. It is only in passing that the significance and wisdom of the film sinks in and has one thinking, this just might be another masterpiece from one of the best filmmakers working in the world today.
9 out of 10
Our Little Sister (Umimachi diary) (Japan, 2015)
Written for the screen and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, based on the manga by Akima Yoshida; starring Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose.