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Review: Our Little Sister

(Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2015)

Over the past two decades and counting, the beach, the family house, and the hospital have been the physical domains of Kore-eda’s cinema. It is a cinema of minutiae, of the past and present, surveying the tininess and transitory condition of human life, like “grains of sand on the beach,” as he has described it—a cinema through which he examines how uncontrollable external circumstances affect our sense of identity and belonging.

His newest film, Our Little Sister, follows the lives of four sisters over four seasons in the seaside village of Kamakura. All in their twenties, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho) live together in an old house passed down from their grandmother. When the death of their estranged father takes them to Yamagata for the funeral, they meet their shy teenage half-sister Suzu (the fresh-faced Suzu Hirose)—the daughter of the now-deceased woman who stole their father away from their family—and quickly decide to adopt her.

The humble seaside setting and the plot, almost shocking in its simplicity, is the perfect pretext for Kore-eda’s quintessential examination of time and memory. Like collected dewdrops, its collated moments of quotidian pleasures reawaken the senses—a bike ride shown in slow motion through a tunnel of sakura blossoms pulsates with the sensorial pleasure of everyday-ness—while giving rise to an awareness of the impermanent nature of an individual life, a family unit, and a town. “What interests me is not only the beauty of the scenery of Kamakura—or of the four sisters,” Kore-eda explained once in an interview, “but also . . . the beauty that arises from the realization . . . that the town, and the time there, continue even when we are gone.”

Our Little Sister

The sisters take their time going for long walks on the beach, cooking meals for each other, and making plum wine from the fruit of the old tree in their yard. Kore-eda and cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto (Like Father, Like Son) capture the activities in and around the house in gently swiveling pans, nimble low-angle views, and lingering long shots of the sea and bucolic surroundings. Never shying away from the picturesque, the film depicts a vivid world that is crystal clear, gleaming, and suffused with life.

As a storyteller, Kore-eda does not resort to generic formulas. The first major conflict occurs in the film’s second half, when a visit from the girls’ biological mother temporarily disturbs the equilibrium of the house, belying the sadness and entropy looming just outside the periphery of the film’s frame. The cold, strained relationship the girls have with her—in contrast to their love for their surrogate mother figure, the owner of the charmingly named Sea Cat Diner—poses a question grappled with in many of Kore-eda’s films regarding the fundamental artifice of family relationships and the impossibility of knowing someone in spite of blood relations.

A melodrama of negative spaces, the film is just as much about characters who are not there: the father, the grandmother, Suzu’s deceased mother, the ancestors to whom they pray in their home shrine. There are no flashbacks, and much of what is felt by the characters goes unsaid; instead we see them looking at each other or out onto the vast, seemingly endless landscape. What is not shown are the girls’ unsuccessful romances, the failure of parents to nurture their children, Suzu’s thwarted childhood as she is left to deal with her mother’s death and her father’s illness, Sachi’s new post at the terminal care center of the hospital. Any of these could have too easily made for more suspenseful and grim dramatic material, but their absence only intensifies the preciousness and richness of each passing moment in Our Little Sister.

Aliza Ma is a New York–based programmer and writer specializing in Asian cinema. She has worked for Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF Cinematheque, and Museum of the Moving Image. She is the head of programming at Metrograph.