Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda is not the filmmaker to turn to if you're looking for explosive action or larger-than-life characters. His stories are simple, gentle, and human, with emotions more powerful than a million Roland Emmerich disaster flicks. But don't mistake the elegance of his filmmaking with a lack of edge. Films such as Nobody Knows and his Cannes Award-winner Like Father Like Son posed nearly impossible familial dilemmas, the kind that leaves the mind racing with difficult solutions. Koreeda's latest, Our Little Sister, is closer to the fairy tale tone of his nearly-flawless childhood adventure, I Wish, although this exploration of family obligation and loss is less challenging than his prior output.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you; it's just that Koreeda's exemplary body of work demands constant comparison. There are no shortage of affecting, sublime moments of personal growth and sisterly bonding in Koreeda's adaptation of Akimi Yashida's popular manga series, as well as many revealing glimpses into Japanese culture. It's in those seemingly inconsequential details, the everyday minutia of everyday life in Japan that Koreeda commits to showing, that we manage to fall in love with these characters.
It almost sounds like the setup for an American dramatic series on the CW. The film centers on three grown-up sisters living together under one roof, all fitting into specific Japanese archetypes. There's sensible eldest sister Sachi (Haruka Ayase), who often finds herself at odds with hard-drinking middle sister Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa). Filling the appropriate amount of quirk is youngest sister Chika (Kaho), whose awkward social graces, especially at the dinner table, are an occasional source of conflict. They have no parents, at least none living in their home, and romantic entanglements only a peripheral concern. All seems content, maybe not perfect but comfortable, until their estranged father passes away and they are forced to attend his funeral. It's there they learn of their half-sister, Suzu (Hirose Suzu), a reserved and mature 15-year-old now left without the one parent she felt a connection with. The sisters invite her to live with them, instead, and hilarity ensues.
Not so much, or at least you aren't going to find big laughs in Our Little Sister. That said, Koreeda is going for a lighter, breezier feel this time, but it's humor built from the sisters' numerous eccentricities and tight bond. They always seem to be indulging in a meal or planning the next one, which makes sense because family meals remain an important fixture in Japanese culture. But there isn't a ton of conflict, at least not within the sisters themselves. There's little tension that arises due to Suzu's guilt over her mother, who was the mistress that broke up the family. Sachi harbors a lot of resentment towards her father for what he did, but it's contradicted by the long-running relationship she has with a married physician. There are other such elements that converge to create a loving tapestry of sisterhood, without any of them emerging as a dominant narrative. Suzu quickly fits in at her new school, becoming a star soccer player; the girls harvest plums for the family wine; Sachi becomes a terminal care nurse; Yoshino deals with adult responsibilities; and Chika longs for an eccentric co-worker. These things bring the sisters together and never is there the suggestion (or no believable suggestion) any of it will tear them apart, which keeps the stakes low throughout.
Like many of Koreeda's other films, Our Little Sister is a gradual reflection of rustic Japan, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Think a live-action Miyazaki anime and you'll get the idea. It's perfect for the casual pace Koreeda prefers, and he carries us, totally at his own time, through each tender and stress-free scene. He's content to serve up a meal of genuine yet familiar human emotion, leaving us unsatisfied and eager for the next helping.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5