Hirokazu Koreeda may be the best director working in a foreign language with no Oscar nominations. He reinvents himself from picture to picture: “After Life,” “Still Walking,” “Nobody Knows” and “Air Doll,” all worth seeing, have earned my trust that he’ll always have something to say.
He takes a long time to say it in the meditative “Our Little Sister.” Things do happen: two deaths, the end of a romance, the bonding of siblings who’ve been uneasy in each other’s company, reconciliation of an absent mom and resentful older daughter. Yet they happen as gradually as leaves changing color, so the film requires patience. Eventually, you pick up its rhythm.
Koreeda, who wrote the screenplay, adapted Akimi Yoshida’s josei manga. (Those are comic books aimed at Japanese women from late teens into adulthood.) The original titles of the film and manga are “Umimachi Diary” – “Seaside Town Diary” – and some scenes feel like entries in a journal on unexceptional days: a fireworks show, a visit from a great-aunt, the closing of a neighborhood cafe. But like such a diary, they add up to a life – four lives, in this case.
The three Kôda sisters have settled into a blandly peaceful family dynamic in the old house where they grew up. Sachi (Haruka Ayase), a nurse and the eldest, runs the household and has half-hearted feelings for a married doctor. Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) flirts and drinks too much and has a dull job in a bank. Young Chika (Kaho) works in a shoe store and wants nothing more than some weekend fishing.
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When their father dies, they reluctantly attend the funeral and discover Suzu (Suzu Hirose), a 13-year-old born to wife number two. The widow, wife number three, has no use for a stepdaughter, and Suzu moves in with the Kôdas. Gently, without trying, she causes changes in the household that unite all four of them.
You may think of “Little Women,” which also possesses a sweetness that never cloys but comes close. There’s less forward movement in “Our Little Sister,” because lives don’t change as dramatically. But the same sense of personalities becoming comfortable with each other carries through.
Koreeda edits his movies, so he can be sure the pacing reflects the moods he wants to set. We’re never sure of the passage of time, so life seems cyclical in good and bad ways. Cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto bathes scenes in sunlight and makes use of the cherry blossoms the characters often discuss, and composer Yôko Kanno adds a sugary layer with a faux-classical score.
By the end, a Zen-like calm that might be mistaken for stasis settles over the story. But these lives move forward slowly, inexorably, and they move us, too.
‘Our Little Sister’
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Suzu Hirose, Kaho.
Writer-editor-director: Hirokazu Koreeda.
Length: 128 minutes.
Rating: PG (thematic elements and brief language).