There are certain adjectives that are unavoidably invoked when discussing Hirokazu Kore-eda’s output: his films are repeatedly described as being subtle, lyrical, understated. Indeed, in a recent interview the director himself admitted that he’s interested in scenarios where “no major incident happens”. While this could give the impression that his films are uneventful, nothing could be further than the truth. Kore-eda doesn’t engineer conflict in order to keep the viewer engaged and his latest film, Our Little Sister is no different. For anyone familiar with his work it won’t hold any surprises, only unalloyed enjoyment.
Based on the popular manga Umimachi Diary, it patiently tells the story of three adult sisters, Sachi (Ayase Haruka), Yoshino (Nagasawa Masami) and Chika (Kaho) who live together in a large ramshackle house located in a small seaside town. After the death of their estranged father, they travel to his funeral, only to meet their teenage half-sister Suzu (Hirose Suzu) for the first time. The eldest sister, Sachi, is a diligent, conscientious nurse, who is pursuing a drab affair with a doctor at the hospital where she works. Frustrated with her younger sisters’ perceived flightiness, she recognises a kindred spirit in Suzu, as someone who had to mature quickly in order to deal with their father’s fecklessness. The middle sister Yoshino is pursuing an aimless romance, while Chika, a typical youngest child, is sweet-natured and dreamy. Almost on a whim, the sisters decide to take Suzu in, setting in motion a chain reaction in everyone’s lives.
The film weaves together a series of micro-dramas as Suzu finds a place in her new surroundings. She is still plagued by guilt that her mother was responsible for the breakup of a family and feels her presence in the house is a reminder of their father’s absence. Whereas this scenario would ordinarily be exploited for maximum conflict, Suzu is treated with sympathy and understanding: she is reminded that their father was a kind man albeit also completely useless. Instead, they create a surrogate family life of their own, gradually making their peace with the past. Suzu no longer has to be the responsible adult, but is free to play soccer, develops her first crush and learns how to make plum brandy, a family favourite. Meanwhile, Sachi and Yoshino are spurred on to find a greater purpose for themselves. All of this is played out against a backdrop of the changing seasons, shared meals and family rituals, so by the end of the film you feel truly immersed in their daily lives.
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Clearly this isn’t high-drama, nor does it strive to be. Our Little Sister is a tender film without being cloying and you become genuinely invested in the sister’s’ situation. The leads also give touchingly nuanced performances, allowing different sides of their characters to be continually revealed, while Kore-eda is extremely sympathetic to their emotional dilemmas. When their mother reappears, she initially seems like an awkward and unkind intruder into their sororal setup. But even she is treated with understanding as we come to see how she too has had to deal with the legacy of her husband’s actions. As she leaves to return home, Sachi gives her a parting gift: a jar of plum brandy made by their grandmother. This slowly matured treat seems itself like an apt metaphor for Kore-eda’s work.
Our Little Sister is in selected cinemas now.
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