In a nutshell: Our Little Sister is a beautiful, gentle, life-affirming film from the Japanese master of the family drama, Hirokazu Koreeda, focusing on four sisters sharing an ancestral house in a small coastal town.
In my view, Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda is out on his own in his depiction of families – in particular, siblings – and the small dramas of ordinary daily life. His films are gentle, compassionate, detailed explorations of family relationships in all their nuances, with the focus on character rather than narrative. So it is with Our Little Sister, a standout of this year’s Perth Film Festival, and to my mind Koreeda’s best since the heart-wrenching Nobody Knows (2004).
The setting is a small coastal town in Kamakura, where three sisters in their twenties share an old house left to them by their grandmother. Their parents have long ago divorced and left to pursue separate lives. They have no contact with their father, and only occasional visits from their mother.
The sisters get on fine, but have the odd dig at each other as siblings will. The eldest, 29-year-old Sachi (Haruka Ayase), is a nurse and extends her carer role to the family, taking everything a little too seriously for her sisters’ liking. Middle sister Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) is in her early twenties. She drinks too much, is having an affair with a married man, and is chided accordingly. The youngest, 19-year-old Chika (Kaho), is eccentric and has a boyfriend with an Afro who has lost several toes climbing Everest. Her sisters remark that they “can never understand her taste in men”.
The dynamics between them and the well-established household routines change when their father dies and they ‘adopt’ their half-sister, 14-year-old Suzu (played with charm and poise by the adorable Suzu Hirose), after meeting her at the funeral.
From the moment Suzu joins the household, it is as if a light comes on. She revitalises her older sisters, who welcome her warmly into the fold. She is soon part of the family, the adored younger sister they never realised they were missing.
In typical Koreeda style, things move slowly, naturally, tapping into the seasonal rhythms of the small town. There is a most beautiful scene during sakura season, in which Suzu cycles with a schoolfriend through a tunnel of cherry trees in spectacular full bloom.
Suzu delights in the embrace of her new family, and through her we learn of the minutiae of their daily lives: making traditional plum wine, honouring their deceased grandmother with offerings beneath her portrait, dining on their favourite mackerel at a seaside café they have patronised since childhood (food features prominently throughout)…
Of course, not everything runs smoothly. The narrative, such as it is, dips in and out of each of the girls’ lives as they face their various challenges. In time it emerges that Suzu is sitting on a well of anger and grief related to her father and step-mother. Her confiding this to Sachi is a pivotal bonding moment. A sad twist comes when a person central to their lives is stricken with terminal cancer, serving as a reminder that everything comes to an end.
Indeed, there is an underlying sense throughout that the sisters’ time together in their old ancestral home will be limited by the natural progression of their lives. This lends a poignancy to the film that peaks in a wonderful final image of sibling unity, as the four girls cavort about on the seashore joshing with each other on a lovely weekend afternoon. It’s a moving scene that catches you unaware, simple and ordinary and perfect, leaving you nostalgic for times like that long gone from your own life.
There is no doubt that Koreeda is presenting an idyllic picture of family here, and of small-town life, and some will complain that the film is sentimental. For me, this is no criticism at all. There is more than enough cinema rubbing our noses in grim family dysfunction and insisting on a dark take on humanity. When someone as gifted, astute and humane as Koreeda is working at the other end of the spectrum, restoring the balance, I say all power to him, and to the quiet and gentle beauty of his work. Let the light in.
2015-16 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 28 March-3 April, 7.30pm
Joondalup Pines: 5-10 April, 7.30pm
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