Our Little Sister is simply one of those movies you want to hug and thank for being in your life. It is a sweet, true-to-the-bone tale of sibling relationships; their misunderstandings and bickering, their unconditional love and outstanding loyalty. Siblings get on each other’s nerves, I know, but they can also be supports, and the Kōda sisters are not only each other’s supports, they are potentially lifelines. The question is whether they know it.
Sachi, Yoshino and Chika Kōda have inherited their grandmother’s old house, tucked away in a woody slope somewhere in Kamakura, Japan. One day they receive word of their estranged father’s passing and attend his funeral in the next town. There they meet the troubled but polite Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose), their father’s 14-year-old daughter with his second wife. The three sisters take a liking to her, partly because she’s courteous, partly because, just maybe, they see a bit of themselves in her world-wary eyes. The eldest, Sachi, impulsively invites Suzu to come stay with the sisters in Kamakura, and what was once a trio is now a quartet.
Sure, the house is large enough to accommodate all four girls, but sometimes walls and doors are not enough to keep out secrets, hidden truths and clashing personalities. Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda adapts his screenplay from the manga series “Umimachi Diary”, and what’s most successful about this translation is the way he imbues his girls with recognisable, even familiar traits without making them seem like puppets bound to restrictive cords.
Sachi (Haruka Ayase), being the eldest, adopts the mother role, keeping her siblings in check and the house free from clutter. But her personal life is not as organised as she’d like it to be. Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) is the free spirit, always on the lookout for beer, always bedding a man she will never marry. She sees life as an opportunity to be happy and thinks everyone else is trying to bring her down. Chika (Kaho) is cheerful and boundless. She works at the local sports store and is more peacemaker than instigator. Little Suzu is just growing up. She’s the sporty one, unconcerned with the pressure of adult life. Her big decisions include what to wear for the day, how she’s going to fare on the school football team and what cute Fuuta (Ôshirô Maeda) thinks of her rosy cheeks.
What’s great is that none of these characters come off as forced or hackneyed. Yes, they’re defined by their personalities, but the movie gives them room to explore themselves as true human beings, through heartache, conflict, happiness and, yes, love.
It’s not just the writing I admire. The casting by Toshie Tabata is incredibly acute. It is true — none of the sisters look like one another. Their temperaments don’t coexist. But the faces of the actresses portraying them are just right, if not more than just right. Haruka Ayase’s features are sharp and stern, with eyes that are penetrating but delicate. Masami Nagasawa is pretty and lean, eager to smile, comfortable in clothes that hug her figure. Kaho has a touch of craziness about her, reflected in her mangled hair. Her dress code is moderately bohemian. Suzu Hirose is fresh-faced and wide-eyed, quick to joy, filled with endless possibilities and a gentle knowing, constantly reminding us that she is privy to truths nobody else is. To sit down and regard these four magnificent ladies as viable family companions is a treat seldom bestowed by cinema. Treasure every moment.
What of the plot, then? There isn’t one. Just as there is no plot in life. Much is said about the girls’ father; whether he was a stand-up guy or just another lousy lecher who cheated his wife and daughters of his love. Thankfully, we never see the man, nor are we bombarded by fruitless flashbacks. Everything we piece together of him comes from the mouths of his children, and they paint quite the picture.
The girls move through the days, tending to each other and themselves. Problems arise in the workplace. New loves come and go. Always Koreeda keeps the drama on a plausible key and never cheats his characters of their intellectual and emotional freedom. He doesn’t play for the big moments; hardly anything shocking happens. The real power of Our Little Sister is in the performances, the people, the carefully constructed scenes of communication and sharing. These aren’t girls who hide away; they open up and talk. They joke. They listen. They connect. That’s more than many families do.
The movie is in the grand Japanese tradition of centring on themes of relationships, culture, respect and death. Most American movies focus on themes of violence, sex, crude language and disrespect. Forgive me for siding with the Japanese. Or don’t forgive me. That’s fine. Right now I couldn’t care less, because my mind is still held aloft by the splendour of Our Little Sister. This is one of the year’s best films.