Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose
Released on 12 June 2016
It’s barely six weeks since Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister was in cinemas. It was only a limited release and, at the time, it was almost too easy to overlook a small Japanese film with a self-effacing attitude. So the quick move to DVD is no surprise. More importantly, it’s a very welcome opportunity to catch what is something of a little gem.
Based on the Japanese manga series, Umimachi Diary (translated as Seaside Town Diary), it follows two years in the lives of three sisters who become four, when they discover that their now deceased father had a daughter they’d never met. Suzu (Suzu Hirose) is just 13 and willingly moves from the country to live with her older half sisters. It allows her to grow in confidence and helps them all to address their pasts.
Putting a group of sisters in the spotlight is a familiar trope – Chekhov had three, Louisa May Allcott four. This is more a case of three plus one in a story about coming to terms with the past and moving forward. Not that it’s full of high drama – the closest it comes to overt conflict is the regular spats between the sisters – but there is far more going on underneath the surface in this piece of a subtle, understated but beautifully crafted drama.
The three older sisters each have distinct personalities: not quite caricatures but there are moments when they could head in that direction. The eldest, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), is the mother figure, working as a nurse in the local hospital and looking after her sisters, while still finding time for a discreet relationship with a married doctor. Middle sister Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) works in the bank but has a more frivolous nature – something she inherits from her mother, as we discover later on – her main interests being dating boys and generally having a good time. Chika (Kaho) is the youngest, more unconventional, and dating the manager of the store.
They live together in their grandmother’s house, large and airy with its sprawling plum tree in the garden, all of which looks very idyllic. But the house, essentially the film’s fifth character, has seen all manner of turbulence, grief and sorrow as well as times of happiness. The girls’ father left them for another woman and some years later their mother left for another man, leaving the girls to cope on their own. So that home, with all its memories and traditions, is one of the few constants in their lives. The death of their father takes them, albeit reluctantly, to his funeral where they discover Suzu, the half sister they’d never known. Their father’s widow isn’t the teenager’s mother and has a child of her own to look after, so she doesn’t stand in the way of her going to the live on the coast with the three young women. And, while her arrival could undermine the relationships between the three, she turns out to give them a focus instead.
In those early scenes, everybody seems to describe Suzu as being “mature” yet in her sailor top and ankle socks, she looks anything but. It transpires that it was she who looked after her dying father, rather than her step-mother, and that’s where the sense of her being old before her time comes from. She’s a girl who’s all but lost her childhood and it’s only with her step-sisters that she discovers some of the simple pleasures she’s missed – good food, riding a bike underneath the cherry blossom, a walk on the beach and, her great passion, playing football.
There’s a tender sub-plot running in parallel, all about Sachiko (Jun Fubuki) who runs their favourite café on the sea front. In their younger days, the girls were regular visitors with their father and Suzu comes to love the place – and the food – just as much. But then the owner has to sell the café – even Yoshino in her bank job can’t help her – and is diagnosed with a terminal illness. She’s lovingly supported by the owner of another café, Senichi (Lily Franky), who reveals to Suzu that he knew her father much better than anybody suspected. It’s an agonizing, tender little love story, played out in the most low-key of ways: the two hesitant lovers only ever express their feelings with glances and the occasional smile.
It’s a simply told family drama that washes over you with such warmth and gentleness that you welcome it with open arms. Yet it disguises deeply buried sadness which occasionally rises to the surface and each revelation is given maximum impact because it always comes at an unexpected moment. The film chips away especially at Suzu and Sachi in particular, exposing the memories that have always influenced their lives but which, ultimately, aren’t allowed to dictate them.
All the seeds are sewn for something cheesy and cloying, but Our Little Sister is the complete opposite. It has dignity, beauty, intelligence and the occasional flash of anger. And be careful. It will move you to tears.
Our Little Sister is released on DVD on Monday, 12 June and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 16 June.