Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Our Little Sister.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary) is a scenic and gently sensitive domestic drama that confirms its maker’s reputation as a great director in the tradition of Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. Adapted from a popular Japanese comic book, the film concerns three twentysomething sisters – Sachi, Yoshino, and Chika – who live together in an old, large house in the seaside city of Kamakura. When their long absent father dies, they travel to a small countryside town for his funeral and meet their shy, teenage half-sister for the first time. Bonding quickly with the orphaned Suzu, they invite her to live with them and the four sisters commence a new life of tentatively joyful discovery. With documentary precision and picturesque elegance, Our Little Sister is a touching survey of love, generosity, and the weight of family histories.

Disc Features:

Speaking about his 2008 film Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda laments the acclaimed movie’s ending, as if recalling Robert McKee’s warning in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) – “Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” For Kore-eda, his main character’s retrospective commentary is a sour concluding note to Still Walking, a failure to show rather than tell or an insecurity to trust the preceding content to give meaning in ambiguity. With his 2015 film Our Little Sister, Kore-eda avoids such pitfalls, creating a film where the past naturally lives in the present. It does not have the conspicuous ellipsis of time that marks the end of Still Walking and lacks the temporal flourishes of more celebrated recent films like Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) that trade on the past traumas of their characters. Our Little Sister is deceptively straightforward in its presentation, but its restraint and muted power is an accomplishment of its greater technique and a statement on Kore-eda’s growing faith in life and family.

Based on Akimi Yoshida’s Umimachi Diary, a popular josei manga (read: comic series aimed at young adult women), Kore-eda adapted Our Little Sister into a breezy, episodic, and often improvised story of three 20-something sisters welcoming their estranged, teenage half-sister Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose) into their lives and their large family home. The ostensible head of the household is eldest sister Sachi Kouda (played against type by the bubbly Haruka Ayase), a serious but considerate woman who works as a nurse and carries on a quiet affair with a married doctor in the same hospital. Middle sister Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) struggles with irresponsible boyfriends but finds purpose in a job promotion at a local bank branch. Chika (played by actress and fashion model Kaho) is the youngest of the Kouda trio and is a quirky figure, working in a sporting goods store and dating a co-worker remarkable for his large afro and missing toes. The three women attend the funeral of their recently deceased and long absent father, a source of quiet resentment for them, having abandoned their mother for another woman which then led to their mother abandoning them and Sachi assuming the role of quasi-parent to her younger sisters. At the funeral, they meet Suzu, the teenage daughter of that subsequent relationship who now finds herself in an uneasy position with her father’s third wife. Sachi, impressed with the young woman, invites Suzu to join them in Kamakura, a seaside city just south of Tokyo where the women live. Suzu agrees.

Our Little Sister proceeds through Suzu’s relatively sedate first year with the Koudas, the seasons discreetly progressing while the sisters come to understand each other through plum winemaking, youth soccer matches, and meals at home and in a local diner. As David Fear observes, “Nothing cataclysmic happens. Nothing much happens at all, except life, the passage of time and the slow hardening of the glue that holds these four young women together.” Sachi and Yoshino bicker as only siblings do, Chika’s happy-go-lucky attitude buoys her along, and Suzu quietly and attentively settles into school and home-life. A visit by the Kouda daughters’ mother and an illness to a beloved restaurant owner threaten high drama but Kore-eda allows these conflicts to find quiet resolutions, often offscreen. What lingers at the periphery of Our Little Sister are grievances felt toward the sisters’ parents and the presence of Suzu quietly brings them into higher relief. And as it becomes apparent that that Suzu’s perceptions of her father and mother obviously differ from those of the Koudas, so too is it revealed that the attitudes between the Koudas differ. Kore-eda elects not to have these characters stand in opposition to each other, but instead has them consistently meet each other with generosity and understanding. Fear’s description of glue hardening is apt, as Our Little Sister is a film about familial bonding by individuals invested in, not resistant to, loving each other.

There is no shortage of things to admire in Our Little Sister – the performances are uniformly endearing (all four principal actress were nominated for Japanese Academy Awards, with Hirose winning Rookie of the Year), Kamakura is quaint and picturesque as shot by Mikiya Takimoto, and Yoko Kanno’s score is unashamedly emotional and uplifting when utilized – however the film’s profundity rests in Kore-eda’s ability to allow the past to live naturally in his characters’ present. With a documentarian’s eye (Kore-eda got his start making docs for television), he recognizes how objects and actions have origins in and of themselves, and his characters interact with those associations throughout. A household shrine, a grandmother’s kimono, and a father’s favourite view all become access points for the four young women to explore their relationships with each other, to consider the influence of others on their lives, and reconsider their attitudes in relation to the differing views of the same material. As in Still Walking, food figures most prominently in exploring these associations. Sachi reflects on her mother while making her seafood curry, while Chika’s feelings about her mother are generated from a hearty stew. The purchase of apples reveals Sachi embroiled in romantic problems, while whitebait on toast provides a safe space for Suzu to reconnect with her lost father. For Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, Kore-eda creates a “memory architecture” out of “memory props,” objects and contexts that evoke nostalgia and reflection. These memory props further encourage viewers to access similar recollections from their own lives and develop a sense of shared experience with the film. This reflective tone, particularly where it arises in open, expansive moments that provide the time and space to ruminate in these recollections, may be Kore-eda’s greatest connection to Ozu and those recurring pillow shots. It is existential in its truest sense – locating meaning and identity in relation to the external world, both lived and living.

While Our Little Sister is a film deserving of celebration simply for the depth and elegance of Kore-eda’s world building, it is also a film where profound issues of grief and emotional trauma are worked out, albeit in a sedate, polite, and well-intentioned manner. The legacy of the Kouda sisters’ abandonment roots all that happens in Kore-eda’s film. Suzu is brought into their home from a place of near abandonment herself in an effort to re-write past harms in the present tense. Sachi and Yoshino struggle with unproductive romances with unreliable men, reconstituting themselves as the mother they resent. Suzu is challenged with her own parental legacies, struggling with feelings of love and frustration toward parents that directly harmed the childhoods of the Kouda women, then shouldering the guilt of personifying that past damage. And death revisits the sisters in Kamakura, forcing them to reconsider their views of the deceased and their relationships with the living. There is great beauty in the understated ways that Sachi, Yoshino, Chika, and Suzu decide to love themselves and each other, to forgive their parents, and step out of the past’s shadow to build lives of their own. These moments occur throughout Our Little Sister like ripples spreading out from Suzu’s arrival, quiet and cleansing.

I recently rewatched Our Little Sister with my wife who had not seen it. I knew the beauty of Kamakura, the generosity of the sisters, and emphasis on household routine would win her over easily. She asked me if it would make her cry and being unable to think of any ostentatious moments of emotion or tragedy, I told her it should be safe. A quarter of the way in, she was covered in tears. “You said this wouldn’t me cry!” she bawled, “They’re all so nice!” Our Little Sister is a nice movie, which is to say it is a winsome film about kind and mature-minded women, full of nostalgic warmth and sincere emotions. Beyond being such a beautiful and precise film, it would provide a counterpoint in the Criterion Collection to Still Walking, showing Kore-eda’s treatment of domestic environs as he ages and as fatherhood softens his view. Knowing the Collection’s less is more approach to cover treatments and wanting to stay away from the numerous posters for Our Little Sister that show the sisters either in close-up or walking in line away from the camera and recalling the cover treatment to Still Walking, we propose this little used poster for the film that nicely alludes to remembrance its evocation of a grainy, washed out, and aged photograph.

Credits: The cover synopsis is adapted from a frequently appearing summary of the film. The referenced documentaries appear on the Japanese Blu-ray edition of Our Little Sister, although I’ve been unable to get a clear account of all those included features. Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano was selected to provide an essay for her interviews with Kore-eda and her frequent writing on him, including her essay “A Dialogue Through Memories: ‘Still Walking'” and her book Japanese Cinema in the Digital Age.

This post also had the benefit of A.O. Scott’s review for The New York Times, David Fear’s review for Rolling Stone, Bilge Ebiri’s Q&A with Kore-eda for The Village Voice, Jonathan Romney’s piece for Film CommentAliza Ma’s review for Film Comment, Winston Toh Ghee Wei’s “More Than Just Tofu: Examining Koreeda Hirokazu’s Still Walking in Relation to the Japanese ‘Family Drama’ Genre,” and the Eiga.com article as translated on Anime News Network as “Haruka Ayase Stars in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Umimachi Diary Film.”

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