DIRECTED BY HIROKAZU KOREEDA/JAPANESE/2016
Fascinated with Naomi Kawase’s Japanese film Sweet Bean which is being released by Kino Lorber, I headed into the screening for Hirokazu Koreeda’s new film Our Little Sister with a sense of curiosity and was not disappointed. Like Kawase, Hirokazu has taken a simple story that takes place in the heart of the city of everyday Japan and infused it with a beauty and simplicity that stands in sharp contrast with the hustle and bustle of my everyday western world. Both films seem to be telling me to slow down, to notice the details that are happening all around me, and to embrace this one life that I have, with all of its downsides, deviations, and struggle. To reference Roberto Benigni’s classic film title, it is simply saying that Life is Beautiful.
Our Little Sister, adapted from Akimi Yoshida’s still running Umimachi Diary (Diary of a Seaside Town), is the story of three adult sisters who live together in their mother’s former house. Their father and mother had divorced years ago, with their mother having left 14 years prior. They had not seen their father for 15 years, and only knew that he had had another daughter with his second wife, who he left their mother for, and was now on his third wife. The burden fell on the oldest sister, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), a nurse, to raise her two younger sisters, Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) a bank teller who likes to date and drink, and Chika (Kaho), a free spirit who works at an athletic shop.
The girls learn that their father has passed away, and out of duty rather than love, they make their way to the northern city where he lived to attend the memorial service. There, they meet their half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose), a 15-year old girl who is far more mature than most that are twice her age. Seeing that Suzu is not at home with her step-mother, their dad’s 3rd wife since her mother has also passed, they invite her to come back to live in their house and be a family.
The film itself is simply a series of looks at the everyday lives of these 4 girls and how they interact with each other and the life situations that come around. There is nothing flashy or showy about the presentation of this story, but it is done with such an effective touch, and empathetic gaze that causes the audience to simply sit back and drink it all in. Through their interactions, we learn of the great depth of each character in this tale, despite the easy-to-label facade they hide behind. Each character is unique and different, yet feel part of an organic whole. Here, that is the family bond that rises above all else and can be seen as they pay homage to their ancestors while never failing to truthfully call out their shortcomings.
Kirin Kiki, who was wonderful in Sweet Bean, also shows up here at the girl’s wise great aunt who acts as a surrogate grandmother dispensing wise council, but also a quick rebuke when it is called for. And through it all, a tapestry of family, love, and relationships is weaved throughout these different lives that aptly resembles the various set-pieces that mean so much to these sisters. Namely a garden, a mountain view, the ocean, a diner, and most importantly, the quirky house that serves as their home and refuge from the struggles of life. Each time the camera gazes upon these things, it invites you to breath a little slower and take it all in. As they become more and more familiar scenery in this film, they begin to feel much like home to the audience as well. These are the familiar things that help the journey we see being experienced by young Suzu as she tries to acquaint herself with her newly discovered family and town. They are the comfort for Sachi, Yoshino, and Chika that they wrap themselves up in when life turns cold and unbearable. It is also the shared experience that creates a sense of community, both among themselves, and with the lives they encounter in their their hometown.
Like Sweet Bean, there is a very special meaning in this film related to the Cherry Blossoms, and the camera captures this beautiful aspect of the Japanese landscape in a reverent naturalism that is something to behold. Japanese film, and Japan itself, has no better modern ambassadors for its rich culture and beauty than directors Hirokazu Koreeda and Naomi Kawase.
Our Little Sister is a joyous journey of life, love, and the bond of sisterhood in the face of the everyday struggles of life. It is not flashy, loud, or impatient. It is a calm, and often humorous look, at life seen through the eyes of four girls whose family, with all of its ups and downs, might look a lot like yours. It is a refreshing oasis of a film in a desert of summer over-sensory stimulation through sequels, explosions, and studio tent-poles. It is completely in Japanese with English subtitles, but even these feel like they are simply there to force you to slow down and take it all in. This is something I am happy to embrace.