Our Little Sister (2016)
dir. Hirokazu Koreeda
written by: Hirokazu Koreeda
starring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose
3.5 out of 4 stars
A running joke between my roommates revolves around my library of family dramas and undying love for the sub genre. While I read The Nest, one was reading The Weird Sisters, and the other was engrossed in A Reunion of Ghosts; both glared while I interrupted with my rants of Jason Bateman stealing my screenwriting debut with The Family Fang, which of course I loved. These very American stories of families dealing with the shit their relatives cause are just that: very American stories filled with angsty, damaged characters attempting to rebuild from everything that has gone wrong. Does it have to be contentious to be powerful?
Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has escaped my grasp for far too long. Criterion Collected and honored far and wide, Koreeda adapted the manga Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida into a tale of strengthening familial bonds in spite of the past. When the Koda sisters Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho) attend their absent father’s funeral, they are greeted by their little sister Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose), the daughter of the woman for whom their father abandoned them. Noting that the orphaned girl was destined to live a lonely life with her stepmother, the grown sisters offer to take in Suzu to their childhood home. Exploring the growth of their sisterly bond, the family develops a connection in the absence of their parents.
Never is there a fight; never is there melodrama. Unique in its exploration of a family rebuilding, allowing their connection to develop as a cohesive group makes the family actually feel that way: they are a family, and they love each other unconditionally. The cultural differences between Japan and America are notable. For a film surrounding funerals and death memorials, the tone is surprisingly cheerful. The sister’s manage confrontations with their mother, disappointing romantic relationships, and managing building their own lives while adjusting to guardianship, the sister’s maintain optimism while accepting the more cruel facts of life.
Koreeda directs his young women masterfully. Ayase holds her strict older sister to high standards while suffering from her own internal clock. Her meaty role permits den-mothering, even as her personal life drastically shifts. Nagasawa provides a shadow of Sachi as the middle daughter. Her career development highlights a shift toward independence and a desire to aid others, even though her dating life does nothing to aid herself. Kaho is given a unique perspective as the youngest daughter. She barely remembers the father who raised Suzu, and this perspective permit some hearty scenes between the youngest two sisters. Suzu Hirose provides likely the best performance of the show. Having been dropped into a family and town with which she is unfamiliar, she is able to stretch every scene with her emotive eyes and joyous personality. Greeting the sisters’ mother at a memorial, she collapses onto the wall behind her following a brave faced solo encounter. She appears to breathe this role; so comfortable from a chipper first crush with a schoolmate to a drunken reminiscence of her questionable parental interactions.
With a growing pile of movies focused on children dealing with the repercussions of their parents’ decisions, we have a growing repertoire of exciting films to follow up this joy. Still Walking investigates questionable family reunions, Nobody Knows explores parental abandonment, and Like Father, Like Son opens tough decisions in the face of children switched at birth. If these other films are shot and masterfully edited with the same keen eye and precise touch as Our Little Sister, they will quickly be held as gems of modern family drama, much like this memorable, touching, surprising film.