After pondering the consequences of how the switch of two children at birth affects their families in his previous effort Like Father, Like Son, Hirokazu Kore-eda once again considers identity and sense of how one fits into their own family in Our Little Sister. In Like Father, Like Son, the central conceit is so emotionally charged that it does the majority of the heavy lifting in its means of drawing in its audience. Though it has dramatic, plot-driving moments, Our Little Sister is more restrained, and depends on the resonance of its understated, episodic slices of life. As such, it is a film that requires a very specific sensibility: though its plotting is perhaps detailed, its structure is relaxed and delicate, and relies mostly on what is implied tonally and wordlessly in the physical and intangible interactions between its characters. Always with smiles and poise that recall the women of Ozu, each of its four young women sorts out her own insecurities and personal challenges, as they learn to accommodate the changes in their family’s essence.
Our Little Sister zooms in on a family of three sisters, Sachi (Ayase Haruka), Yoshino (Nagasawa Masami), and Chika (Kaho), living in Kamakura, Kore-eda’s hometown. Their father left them and their mother years ago for another woman with whom he fathered a fourth daughter, Suzu (Hirose Suzu). Upon his abandonment, their mother leaves them as well, forcing teenaged Sachi to raise her sisters. They move on from their pain, and live happily together in the big home that their parents left them. Once their father dies, they attend his funeral and are finally united with their long lost, precocious little sister. Suzu’s mother has been dead for years, and her father had remarried, leaving Suzu without blood roots of her own. Enchanted by Suzu, the sisters decide to ask her if she is willing to move in with them, and she instantly accepts. The girls get along beautifully, with very little apparent conflict, but Suzu inwardly struggles to leave her emotional baggage and insecurities as she tries to find her place among this family.
Our Little Sister is inspired by Akimi Yoshida’s original graphic novel Umimachi Diary, but does not lift dialogue or scenarios from this source material. Instead, Kore-eda resolves to devise new scenarios and trim characters while still retaining the spirit of the book. Furthermore, the screenplay was not fully written until all of the roles were cast in order to play to his actors’ mannerisms and characteristics. And it is an approach that is rewarded with the strength of his actresses’ performances. The four actresses portraying the sisters share a vibrant chemistry, and their interactions leave one feeling as if they are watching real moments of a family unit’s intimacy. Their characterizations flow effortlessly and naturally, and mesh beautifully together, especially in the scenes showing the many meals they share together.
Our Little Sister is a slow, gentle burn, but beautifully paints a living, vital portrait of a family’s dynamic. What stands out most about these four sisters is that, much in the tradition of Ozu’s depiction of women, they choose to remain positive and hopeful in the midst of their personal hardships, while the film accentuates the temporality of such turmoil in lieu of the beauty of nature, and life itself, and affirms that these will endure, regardless of circumstance.