Marking the subtle transitions in the lives of three sisters after they take under their wing a teenage half-sibling they never knew, “Our Little Sister” is so meticulously shot and gracefully orchestrated that it can be considered a worthy contempo successor to Kon Ichikawa’s masterpiece “The Makioka Sisters.” Yet, in attempting to evoke an overwhelmingly femme-centric universe for the first time, Hirokazu Kore-eda adopts an approach so serene that his protagonists’ pain as well as their personalities remain largely muffled as they drift soulfully through the seasons. While gently engaging throughout, the pic nonetheless doesn’t reverberate as deeply as the helmer’s 2013 Cannes jury prizewinner, “Like Father, Like Son,” but Kore-eda’s standing among the worldwide culturati will ensure a warm response at festivals and arthouse cinemas.
“Our Little Sister” is Kore-eda’s fourth film (after “Nobody Knows,” “I Wish” and “Like Father, Like Son”) to center on abandoned children. This time, the protagonists have grown up and seem to cope better in their cozy provincial life, but their trauma is also buried deeper, and the story explores their subconscious desire to reclaim their childhood. In adapting shojo manga artist Akimi Yoshida’s “Umimachi Diary” (“Diary of a Seaside Town”), published sporadically since 2006 and still going, Kore-eda (who also wrote and edited) has wrought certain changes: Most significantly, the central perspective has shifted from the little sister, Suzu, to the eldest, Sachi. Consequently, the film emerges as less a coming-of-ager than a pensive drama about how adults come to terms with the mess their parents made of their lives.
The Koda sisters — Sachi (Haruka Ayase), 29, Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), 22, and Chika (Kaho), 19, live in their late grandmother’s sprawling ancestral home in the historical city of Kamakura, an hour’s train ride from Tokyo. One day they receive news of their father’s death but appear indifferent to it, since hehad left them to elope with another woman in Sendai, Tohohoku; since her death, he had again remarried and relocated to Yamagata, further north.
Using work as an excuse, Sachi dispatches her younger sisters to attend the funeral, where they meet 13-year-old Suzu (Suzu Hirose), a daughter from their father’s second marriage. Sachi arrives unexpectedly and within minutes, having sussed out that Yoko, her dad’s widow, is an attention-seeking flake who’s not fit to be Suzu’s guardian. On a whim, she invites the shy, crestfallen Suzu to move to their Kamakura home.
Sachi, a nurse at the local hospital, has been taking care of Yoshino and Chika since their parents’ divorce, and she conducts her daily interactions with them like both a fretful mother and a stern headmistress. She’s smugly dismissive of her sisters’ taste in men and irritated with their more laidback ways, and her playful arguments with them reflect Kore-eda’s lucid eye for the dynamics of family interaction. As the sisters drift through their mundane jobs and not entirely stable love affairs, the ocean’s throbbing presence, the rhapsodic seasonal changes and family’s cherished culinary traditions are lyrically embedded into the narrative. Like the wine they make with fruits picked from their 55-year-old plum tree, Kore-eda implies, a family’s memories and bonds must be preserved with the utmost care.
Such scenes provide ineffable pleasure for patient audiences, in tune with the understated emotions and softly undulating rhythms of classical Japanese family dramas. Some viewers, however, might understandably be bored by the story’s lack of drama, or left cold by the time the protags’ anger and passion finally bleeds through. We’re 80 minutes into the film before the first major conflict happens, when the Koda sisters’ mother, Miyako (Shinobu Otake), resurfaces after having left them to run off with a man some 15 years earlier.
In “Still Walking” and “Like Father, Like Son,” the sense of catharsis was so powerful that it lent depth and meaning to the characters’ prior repression; here, the characters attend funerals like they’re bridge-club gatherings, and critical decisions are made over a leisurely stroll. While most of the protags are ultimately reconciled with themselves and others in a quietly moving way, their Zen-like equanimity sometimes lacks conviction.
Koreeda’s sensitive yet lucid helming keeps the performances precise yet natural, and the presence of character actors in supporting roles — like Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Jun Fubuki and Shinobu Otake — adds flavor to the cast, even if they aren’t given much centrality in the story. Although they’re excellent actors in their own right, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Ryo Kase and Takashi Ikeda are short-changed as the Koda sisters’ love interests, to minimal emotional effect.
The four distaff leads hold the screen by dint of their sheer beauty, but theirs are not career-breakthrough performances. Still, Ayase, who exudes a vivacious personality in most of the films she’s starred in, successfully conveys Sachi’s tightly wound mental state with her imposing posture and strong sense of self-discipline. This makes it hard for viewers to get under her skin most of the time, but she is radiant in scenes with Hirose’s Suzu, revealing another side of empathy and gentleness to the person she sees as her younger mirror image.
Craft contributions, as expected of a Kore-eda film, is superb in an entirely unostentatious way. Especially worth noting is Yoko Kanno’s music, whose dulcet melodies and classical edge has a softening effect on the helmer’s usually austere tone. Lenser Mikiya Takimoto (“Like Father, Like Son”) captures the genteel charm of Kamakura while filtering out its more touristy spots; his pristine visuals, enhanced by an elegant color palette of blue, gray and olive, has none of the artificial glossiness suggested by his long career in commercials. However, some of the framing, notably the sisters’ upright poses and profile shots, strain to reference Ozu’s compositions. Kore-eda’s professed homage to the master of family drama (a longtime Kamakura resident) feels a little superficial compared with “Still Walking,” which captures Ozu’s spirit rather than rigidly adhering to his technique.