Sachi (Ayase), Yoshino (Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho), three sisters from a small Japanese province, make a trip across the country to attend the funeral of their estranged father. During the ceremony they meet their half-sister Suzu (Hirose), born of their father and the woman who brusquely snatched him away from their own mother. Despite Suzu’s nervousness and uneasy respect for her newly found siblings, they strike up an instant affiliation and Suzu soon moves in to the sister’s attractive little house in the country.
Unlike Like Father, Like Son, Koreeda’s charmingly complex paternal emotional rollercoaster, Our Little Sister attempts a much subtler approach to its character development, and it is refreshing to unearth a story that doesn’t use family emotions as a battering ram to drive its plot along. On the flipside, there is a risk that without a portion of disconnect between characters, proceedings can become a little mawkish. There is a limit to how many anecdotes about cherry blossom and Granny’s plum wine can be made without careering into the land of schmaltz, and there are many instances where Koreeda adds a little too much saccharine to the pot. Lacking any discernible plot, Our Little Sister sets itself up primarily as a character development piece, endeavouring to present how the actions of parents instil lifelong characteristics in the children forced to deal with tough emotional issues early on in life. There is not a single slip of casting here and all four main actresses produce excellent performances, and despite Hirose’s initial air of woodenness she flourishes as the running time progresses.
Suzu fits in perfectly at her new school; she excels in the football team, she makes friends. Her sisters are all well balanced; Yoshino’s poor previous boyfriend choices are hinted at but never explored. Chika appears to be the perfectly fun yet educating influence, while Sachi plays the somewhat joy-sapped serious mother figure, yet is still presented as thoroughly well adjusted. Everything always feels a touch too perfect to tease out any serious plot surprises. There is a single heart-stopping instant when Sachi, Yoshino and Chika’s puerile mother comes to the house and defensively describes Suzu’s mother as the woman who destroyed the family. Overheard by Suzu playing on the edge of shot, she instantly freezes and the anxiety of the moment is captivating. Almost immediately however, this accidental overspill of sentiment is apologised for and presents are bought, ties are mended; a typical moment of missed opportunity flashes by as contentedness reigns once more.
An oddly disjointed element to the movie comes in the form of the sporadic soundtrack. Yoko Kanno’s piano and cello score feels absurdly un-Japanese and strangely provokes memories of nineties ITV melodrama Where the Heart Is. This adds a genuinely jerky sensation set against the wonderfully thoughtful oriental visual composition.
To Koreeda’s credit, life appears so mellow in the bosom of this perfectly functioning family unit that by the end credits an extra hour would not be unwelcome. Yet therein lies Our Little Sister’s main shortcoming; in reality families are never that easy to live with. Problems are endemic, sides taken, arguments frequent, lines drawn and crossed, secrets rife. For all the thorny family history, at no point does the sisters bond ever feel the slightest bit corruptible. With the smiles, unbreakable kinship and cherry blossom, Our Little Sister’s narrative feels a little too faultless and quaint to genuinely burrow under the skin.
2.5 / 5
Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda
Scr: Hirokazu Koreeda
Cast: Haruka Ayase, Suzu Hirose, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Ryôhei Suzuki
Prd: Takashi Ishihara, Kaoru Matsuzaki, Hijiri Taguchi
DOP: Mikiya Takimoto
Music: Yoko Kanno
Run Time: 128 minutes
Our Little Sister is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 13th June.