Our Little Sister FL, 2015, 2 ¾ stars

Sister act

Japanese drama ponders family, sisterhood

Our Little Sister

Image copyright Toho Company

Exclusive to MeierMovies.com, August 26, 2016

Japanese cinema is as diverse as any on Earth. From the calm, almost Noh-like work of Yasujirō Ozu, to the epic sweep of Akira Kurosawa, to the revered animation of Hayao Miyazaki, to the extremism of Takashi Miike, Japan offers something for everyone. Amazingly, even within the work of Miike alone, multiple styles and genres are found.

Like those aforementioned examples, Our Little Sister can be an acquired taste. Lacking the action and intensity that mainstream American audiences often associate with 21st-century Japanese filmmaking, the movie, which competed for (but did not win) the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015, is content to meander over two-plus hours, providing glimpses at the meaning of family and sisterhood instead of pouring its energy into big, revelatory moments. Like a Japanese landscape painting, it washes over you aesthetically and takes time to emotionally sink in.

The story’s core is rather straightforward. Sachi, Yoshino and Chika are sisters living in a large house in Kamakura, about 30 miles south of Tokyo. Sachi, who has a promising medical career, is the oldest and sometimes plays mother to the younger women, who haven’t seen their real mother in 14 years, following a messy divorce. But the chemistry between the three is more sisterly and, indeed, Yoshino and Chika are both fiercely independent, pursuing relationships and careers of their own.

They haven’t seen their father since the divorce either, so they barely muster any emotion when informed of his death. Still, they resign themselves to attending his funeral.

“I’m not looking forward to this,” Yoshino tells Chika. “He was our dad, but I hadn’t seen him in 15 years.”

“He used to take us to the zoo,” Chika recalls. “I hardly remember him at all.”

If their father left them little love or nostalgia, he did leave them a half-sister, 14-year-old Asano, and the rest of the film focuses on the three sisters’ relationship with their newfound relative. Along the way, we get insight into the concept of family and friendship, and an examination of how one’s mere existence can affect others, for good and bad.

“Someone is always hurt just because I exist,” Asano confesses to a friend. That might be true, but the greater lesson of Our Little Sister is that lives are also enriched.

Based on the manga series Unimachi Diary, by Akimi Yoshida, the film feels like a diary, with an admittedly large amount of seemingly unimpactful scenes and minutia of daily life. But under the careful direction of Hirokazu Koreeda (Like Father, Like Son), who also wrote the screenplay – and with a beautiful score by Yoko Kanno that fills the silences but never overwhelms them – the film is greater than the sum of its parts. Include solid performances by all four sisters (particularly Haruka Ayase as Sachi) and a satisfying subplot involving an endearing couple who run the sisters’ favorite restaurant, and Our Little Sister is a sweet and well-intentioned, if not particularly memorable, respite from the in-your-face freneticism of summer cinema.

Copyright 2016 © Cameron Meier