Film Review by Diana Cheng
For Asian American Press
CALGARY (Aug. 10, 2016) — Premiering last year at Cannes, and later screened at other international film festivals the world over, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Our Little Sister” finally trickles into the local theatres of North American cities, which is timely. In a world rocked by tumultuous strife and unrests, this latest from Kore-eda makes a quiet solace, offering a taste of the ideal in human relationships and harmony despite brokenness.
“Our Little Sister” is Kore-eda’s most recent work after his 2013 Cannes Jury Prize winning “Like Father Like Son.” Following his usual theme of relationships amidst various family situations, “Our Little Sister” sees Kore-eda at the helm as director, writer, and editor of this production based on the popular Japanese graphic novel “Umimachi Diary” by Yoshida Akimi.
The three Koda sisters have not seen their estranged father for fifteen years. Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho) are now adults, living in the family’s traditional home his father had long deserted in the seaside town of Kamakura. His recent death sends the sisters to his funeral, awkwardly, meeting the woman who had stolen their father’s heart. But it is an inciting incident that changes all their lives. They meet their half sister, 15 year-old Suzu (Suzu Hirose). Herein lies the turning point for the four sisters. Moved by her little step-sister’s mature and quiet demeanor, or maybe stirred by her own older-sister instinct, Sachi invites Suzu to come away and live with them in Kamakura. Suzu gladly agrees.
The new Koda household now is a haven of happy sisterhood. Living under one roof, we see minimal conflicts and constant congeniality. Viewers from a different culture may find the saccharine relationships unrealistic. Are there not any conflicts at all? Of course there are. Kore-eda deftly leads us to some slow revealing. After three quarters of the 120-minute film, we begin to see inner turmoil rise to the surface.
Suzu had to take care of her father in his illness and seeing him to his last breath due to the incompetence of her mother; here is a young teenager bearing the burden of an adult. Now living with three older sisters, Suzu can finally enjoy the childhood she has missed. She quickly captures the attention of other students in her new school with her soccer skills, congeniality and maturity.
In the Koda household, Suzu is the angel of harmony, stirring up love and life. Kore-eda may have spent too much time on the leisurely-paced, day-to-day living such that viewers might feel the lack of conflicts to move the story along. I credit the style to Kore-eda’s realism and a candid camera focusing on the subtleties of nuanced interplay among the characters. Like his previous films “I Wish” (2011), the yearning for family connections of a young boy is shown by his actions and not so much by words, or in “Like Father Like Son” (2013), wherein conflicts are portrayed by contrasts and parallels. Here, while still nursing a deep resentment towards her father for deserting them years ago, Sachi struggles with the moral parallel now as she carries on a relationship with a married doctor at the hospital where she works.
Moral dilemmas, what to choose, how to live, and the search for identity are the issues Kore-eda’s characters have to deal with, but in a way that is quiet and gentle. He introduces us to other endearing characters in the town, adding numerous episodes to build up a human mosaic of harmony in the presence of brokenness and even death.
The scenic seaside town of Kamakura provides a beautiful backdrop for cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto (“Like Father, Like Son”) to shoot the film, reflective of the idyllic life that can be had, even in an imperfect world. The arching branches of the cherry blossoms, landscapes and seascapes mark the healing power of nature. But also like the petals of the cherry blossoms, which third sister Chika likes to pick up and gather in her palm, life is ephemeral. Reminiscent of Ozu’s films, the passing train is a visual metaphor for the passage of time, changes, and the transience of life. To enrich the visuals, Yoko Kanno’s original score sweeps us through with warmth and tenderness, as a supporting voice telling the story. “Our Little Sister” is a heartwarming film for the unhurried viewer to savor.
“Our Little Sister” is scheduled to start screening at Edina Cinema 4 on Aug. 26. Find current and upcoming screenings in other U.S. cities at http://sonyclassics.com/ourlittlesister/dates.html.