Our Little Sister (Cert PG)
1 Disc (Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye) Running Time: 127 minutes approx.
Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda seems to have found tremendous capital of late in relating stories dealing with divided families, from the whimsical I Wish to the touching Like Father, Like Son. Continuing this run of sublime and affecting outings is this adaptation of Akimi Yoshida’s manga Umimachi Diary (Sea Town Diary).
The three Koda sisters – Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho) – live together in their family home south of Tokyo, estranged from both their parents. When they learn of their father’s death they reluctantly attend the funeral, where they meet their 14 year-old half-sister Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose).
Suzu’s stepmother Yoko (Yuko Nakamura) doesn’t appear to eager to keep looking after Suzu so Sachi invites her to live with her and her sisters. Suzu is quick to agree and the four siblings soon bond, yet despite living independent lives they all learn the importance of being part of a close family unit.
There is an inherent danger of making a story of this nature mawkish and sentimental which Kore-eda excels at avoiding, channelling the best qualities of his cinematic forefathers Yasujiro Ozu and Miko Naruse to allow the emotions to permeate through the vivid characters. Room for contrivance is another pitfall but again, Kore-eda circumvents this in the name of credibility.
As such, Suzu isn’t so much abandoned by Yoko but there was little effort on Yoko’s part to make her feel wanted, which Sachi quickly notices. While her sisters are happy to welcome Suzu into the fold, their great aunt Fumio (Kirin Kiki) is on hand to remind them Suzu’s mother was the home-wrecker their father left them for.
The sisters though are angrier at both their parents and recognise that Suzu has effectively been dumped just as they were, this display of empathy proving to be a solid foundation for this new relationship to build on. Sachi as the oldest sister often takes command, usually at the chagrin of the others, but as a nurse this would be part of her make-up.
Bank worker Yoshino is a few years younger than Sachi and lot more fancy free. She argues the most with Sachi but the affection between them remains unbreakable. Yoshino’s journey towards maturity comes after an old family friend, café owner Sachiko (Jun Fubuki) becomes a client, revealing she has terminal cancer.
Chika is 19 and works in a sports shop, alongside boyfriend Sanzo (Takafumi Ikeda). While still possessing a childish edge, Chika is in many ways more level headed than Yoshino and bonds the quickest with Suzu. Whilst the youngster is still fitting in, Suzu’s football skills earn her a free pass among her new school chums as well as a potential boyfriend in Futa (Oshiro Maeda).
There is much joy to be found in the interactions between the siblings as they get used to each other whilst navigating their own life issues. With the centre stage being predominantly female on would assume there would be a strong feminist bent to this tale, and while Japanese society isn’t exactly renowned for such progressive thinking, the siblings are shown in a positive independent light.
Not that the script might ever pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours – a man is the main catalyst of the story – but one can detect an undeniable theme of female empowerment here. If there is a problem – the estranged mother Miyako (Shinobu Otake) later arrives to throw a proverbial spanner into the works – leave it to the girls to sort out. These are 21st century women who refuse to be married off because society says so.
The true growth of the characters and their relationship is, as ever for a Kore-eda film, depicted and recorded through the minutiae and incidental moments rather than major plot developments. Whereas Sachi’s affair with a married doctor (Shinichi Tsutsumi) would be a recurring plot device, here it is a minor subplot quietly exploring another side of Sachi’s caring nature.
Instead we are party to little moments of simple pleasures, such as trips to the beach, a fireworks display, bicycle rides through cherry blossom strewn parks to charm us with exquisite looking and highly emotive moments of escapism. If the sisters need to talk, there is always a trip to the shops or the making of the traditional family plum wine for this to occur.
What might make this a twee experience for some is how polite and calm everybody is. Even in times of crisis a raised voice is never heard and a mostly civil tongue is kept by all yet this sedate and measured atmosphere makes this film such an amiable and sangfroid joy to immerse oneself in. By letting events unfold naturally and not burdened by heavy plot developments the two hours fly by yet we feel enriched by the end.
Despite numerous lead roles across many genres to her credit, it is nice to see Haruka Ayase finally get that prestige role as Sachi. Kaho has plenty of quirky charm to make Chika a likeable younger sister while Suzu Hirose nails her part as Suzu, the central hub of the story, a burdened young girl just waiting to blossom.
My only quibble is that 29 year-old Masami Nagasawa looks too old be Yoshino’s supposed 22 years and could just as easily have played the older Sachi role. This is not enough to spoil the film though, as Nagasawa’s contribution to the group dynamic is just as intrinsic as the others. The remainder of the cast are equally superb.
As a recorder of modern Japanese life, Kore-eda is arguably one of the few mainstream directors whose work remains authentic, and just when it seems he is retreading a beaten path he defies all expectations to stun us with another well crafted, superbly made, joyous slice-of-life drama.
Our Little Sister is probably less “I am woman, hear me roar” and more “I am woman, hear me mew” yet still leaves us emotionally rewarded and deeply touched.
Japanese LCPM 2.0
Japanese DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio
Rating – ****
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