Our Little Sister encompasses several virtues that you seldom find in mainstream American films.
Sometimes it seems like everything in the summer movie calendar is either a special effects-laden blockbuster or a would-be prestige picture that’s being dumped in the summer doldrums because it didn’t come together as planned. But that’s just the jaded critic in me talking, because the truth is that every year a few small-scale gems like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister come along to act as a counterbalance to the big, noisy spectacles. Based on the manga Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida, Our Little Sister is an exquisite film about four sisters in rural Japan that unfolds at an unhurried pace, like a series of lazy summer days when you have all the time in the world to bask in the smallest details of life.
The three Noda sisters, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho), live in their grandmother’s home in the beach town of Kamakura. They’re modern women with jobs and boyfriends (which none of them are in a hurry to marry), but they come home each day to a traditional wooden home with tatami mats and sliding doors. They’ve been living together for years, having been abandoned by both parents, and each has settled into a role. Sachi, age 29, a nurse at the local hospital, is the most responsible and acts as a de facto dorm mother; Yoshino, age 22, works in a bank and is the wild child of the family; Chika, age 19, is a free spirit who works at a sporting goods store alongside her mountain-climber boyfriend (he’s very proud of having lost six toes on an Everest expedition, and offers to display them to anyone who is interested).
While attending their father’s funeral, the three women meet their half-sister, Suzu (Suzu Hirose), a 13-year-old whose maturity exceeds her years. Sensing that something might not be right with Suzu’s mother Yoko (Yuko Nakamura), Sachi invites Suzu to come live with them in Kamakura. She accepts the offer, enrolling in a local school, becoming a star on the town’s coed soccer team, and generally adapting to an unhurried life in a beautiful setting. In some ways Suzu’s story is similar to that of Ingemar, the young protagonist in My Life as a Dog, who blossoms when given an opportunity that should be everyone’s birthright—to live the normal life of a child with relatives who are kind to him and to each other.
There’s nothing fancy about life in the Noda household, or in Kamakura for that matter. The sisters take pleasure in simple things—walking on the beach, making wine from the plums that grow in their back yard, dressing in yukata (summer kimonos), sharing a meal—and while they fight, as all sisters do, they’re also there for each other when the chips are down. Gradually, family secrets are revealed, many of them rooted in the fact that their parents were, to put it mildly, highly irresponsible people. Sad things happen in the present, also, but the sisters are able to acknowledge them without becoming fixated or bitter, and continue to take joy in the good things life offers.
Our Little Sister encompasses several virtues that you seldom find in mainstream American films. One is that it doesn’t offer simple solutions to complex problems, or conclude with a wish fulfillment fantasy of the central characters getting everything they want. Another is that it practices the same virtue as its characters, realizing that life is lived in the small moments as well as the great ones, and that being present in your own life is the greatest gift of all. | Sarah Boslaugh