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Our Little Sister

(2015) *** Pg
128 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Hirokazu Koreeda. Cast: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho.

/content/films/4938/1.jpgAmerica’s sturdiest export, movies, represent our cinema to international audiences as almost exclusively bombastic. Comedies don’t travel well, and our dramas even less so. It’s odd to remember that, for most of the world, Transformers movies are foreign films, when our local understanding of foreign films runs to the opposite: relatively low-budget comedies and dramas, usually with a distinctly more thoughtful take on human existence. Which brings us to Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda—the modern master of the gentle drama—and his latest film, Our Little Sister.

In Japan, Our Little Sister goes by Umimachi Diary, the title of the manga on which Koreeda based his screenplay. As in his films Still Walking, Nobody Knows, and Like Father, Like Son, Koreeda’s concerns here are domestic, complicated mostly by family ties tangled or severed. In sleepy seaside Kamakura live the Kouda sisters: 29-year-old nurse Sachi (Haruka Ayase), who’s responsible at home and at work, if somewhat less so in her romantic life; 22-year-old Yoshimo (Masami Nagasawa), a bank customer-service rep who likes her drink and her boys; and fun-loving, flighty Chika (Kaho), 19, who works at a SportsMax.

When the sisters learn of their father’s passing, they travel north to Yamagata for the funeral of a man they haven’t seen in 15 years. In that interim, divorced Dad took a new wife and sired a child, the now-14-year-old Suzu. The Kouda sisters’ hearts immediately go out to the good-natured Suzu, and they impulsively invite the girl to move to Kamakura and live with her half-sisters. From there, Our Little Sister slowly unfolds its seemingly low-stakes slice-of-life drama of the sisters troubleshooting their senses of self, their life choices, and how best to support each other.

As per the prevailing contemporary Japanese style, Our Little Sister is sweet bordering on sappy, which marks this Koreeda film as a touch less tough-minded than his others. All the same, it offers American audiences an opportunity for a drama of rare and genuine warmth. The director moves at a rhythm akin to the gently lapping waves that open the film, yet somehow swiftly establishes the personalities of the three sisters, a contradiction that speaks to the resonance of the performers and Koreeda’s skill at eliciting emotional truth.

The themes the film explores tend to the simplistic but essential as the women and Suzu struggle or, perhaps, wriggle to live truthfully, generously, and joyfully. A basic seasonal structure gives us a sense of personal evolution (plus opportunities to observe traditions, like plum wine, and to employ cherry blossoms as a symbol of joie de vivre). Bookending thoughts of death (including Sachi’s weighing acceptance of a new position in the terminal-care ward) press the urgency of the characters’ considerations. Despite its real-life concerns, Our Little Sister leaves us as comforted and relieved as Suzu in her older sisters’ embrace.

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