‘Our Little Sister’ a tender, touching Japanese film
One of writer Kurt Vonnegut’s prevalent themes, most notably in the novel “Slapstick,” was the idea of creating extended families as a cure for loneliness. That concept is at the heart of the work of Hirokazu Kore-eda, maker of Japan’s quietest, most delicate films.
His first feature film, “Maborosi,” was about a widowed mother who remarries for the sake of her child and slowly falls in love with her new husband and his daughter. In the two decades since, Kore-eda has made films about families of cult suicide victims who come together (“Distance”); four half siblings, abandoned by their mother, who raise themselves (“Nobody Knows”); an extended family that gathers to commemorate the anniversary of the death of an eldest son (“Still Walking”); and two families that find out their sons were switched at birth (“Like Father, Like Son”).
Now comes “Our Little Sister,” a tender, touching film about three sisters who meet their 15-year-old half sister at their father’s funeral. Though she is the product of the affair that caused their father to abandon the family, they invite her to live with them, trying in a sense to make a broken family whole again.
Based on “Umimachi Diary,” a best-selling graphic novel by Akimi Yoshida, “Our Little Sister” might be Kore-eda’s best film yet. It is certainly one of the best films of 2016.
The twentysomething Koda sisters — hospital nurse Sachi (Haruka Ayase), the de facto mother figure; bank employee Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), a serial dater of loser guys; and retail store worker Chika (Kaho), the oddball younger sister — take an immediate liking to Suzu (Suzu Hirose).
They quickly learn that it was Suzu, not their father’s second wife, who nursed him through his final days, something they appreciate, although the Koda sisters thought of their father as “useless — he gave a friend a loan and went into debt; he sympathized with women and started affairs.”
Suzu quickly makes herself at home at the sisters’ lovely seaside house in Kamakura, about an hour south of Tokyo. She enrolls in school and becomes star of her club soccer team, and the Koda sisters delight in essentially mothering her.
During the course of a year, which is depicted by four distinct, picturesquely filmed seasons, the sisters sometimes fight, but they always support each other through problems that might not seem overly dramatic on the surface, but smack of real life: Boyfriend trouble, tension from extended relatives, job opportunities that might lead to a big move. Kore-eda’s carefully layered approach creates a dense, meaty film. By the end, you know these women well.
“Our Little Sister” is sweet and winning, blessedly free of the irony and self-consciousness that are staples of modern cinema. It’s almost a throwback — kind of like last year’s wonderful Oscar-nominated “Brooklyn.”
Because it is a Japanese film about families, the inevitable comparison is with Yasujiro Ozu. But a more apt comparison might be the films of Mikio Naruse, who also made female-centric films about broken families in the middle of last century (“Scattered Clouds,” “Yearning”). Kore-eda’s film also seems like a modern version of the Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic novel “The Makioka Sisters” (there were four of them, too), a book often called Japan’s “Gone With the Wind.”
Like those works, “Our Little Sister,” while basically a happy, feel-good film, has what the Japanese call mono no aware, which translates as “the pathos of things.” Acutely aware of the transient, impermanent nature of life, the film — like most Kore-eda films — subliminally suggests that while a broken family can become whole again, it won’t always be that way. Change is inevitable.
But for these four sisters, at least for a time, life is perfect.
Running time: 128 minutes (in Japanese with subtitles)
MPAA rating: PG