Gene Siskel once said that he often judged a film by whether he’d want to have a meal with the characters. They didn’t have to be likeable, but they at least had to be good dinner companions. In the case of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister, I didn’t just want to have dinner with the characters—I wanted to move in with them. The rambling old house that they all live in seems to have plenty of room.
In a period when Japanese dramas are often defined by terrible things happening to good people, it’s refreshing to see a movie where nothing really terrible happens and everyone treats each other with respect. This might sound like a recipe for boredom, but it’s not, because there is pain beneath the surface, and it’s revealed slowly in the everyday interactions of the characters. At the same time, they’re all so lovable and decent that you just want to spend more time with them.
It’s also nice to watch a film about women—capable, confident women—whose lives don’t revolve around marriage or finding a partner. Also refreshing is the fact that the men in their lives aren’t monsters or idiots. They’re not great, but they’re not horrible, and we can understand the attraction.
Our Little Sister focuses on the three Koda sisters, who all appear to be in their mid to late twenties. They all live together in a spacious and only slightly dilapidated house in Kamakura. There’s flirty Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), who dates a string of younger and not-so-reliable men and frequently wanders home late. Chika (Kaho) is warm and goofy and works in a sporting goods shop. The oldest and most motherly is Sachi (Haruka Ayase), who chides the other two and works, appropriately, as a nurse. We learn that the girls’ father left home when he fathered a child by another woman, and that their mother also ran off with another man fifteen years earlier.
One day they learn that their father, who had remarried again after the death of his second wife, has died, and at the funeral they meet Suzu (Suzu Hirose), their half-sister. Sachi is quick to sense Suzu’s precarious position with her unreliable stepmother and invites her to move into the house in Kamakura.
In another movie this might have been the beginning of a series of mishaps or tragedies—Suzu failing to fit in or thrive at school, Suzu disrupting the sisters’ carefully constructed routine, Suzu bringing out jealousies or insecurities in the sisters. But none of that happens. Suzu fits right in, makes friends, and blossoms. Meanwhile, in the seemingly mundane interactions of the sisters with each other and everyone around them, we gradually learn more about their flaws, their desires, their capacity for good, and the long shadow left by their father’s abandonment and their mother’s neglect.
As in Still Walking, Koreeda’s story of a family deeply wounded by the untimely death of the eldest son, the camera spends a lot of time near the low table in the main room of the house. There are closeups and reverse shots during conversations, but mostly we watch the sisters coming and going from this room, likely as they’ve done for years. Whatever happens, we sense—heartbreak, troubles at school, the loss of a job—they will always have that table to come back to. It’s comforting to see the bonds they’ve created, even if they’ve arisen from the sad fact of their parents’ inadequacy.
The performances are all solid. As Suzu, Suzu Hirose strikes just the right balance—she’s mature but shy and uncertain, and mostly seems grateful to be in a place where people are kind to her. Haruka Ayase, more known for goofy comedic roles, is also convincing as the compassionate but clearly haunted Sachi. Masami Nagasawa’s impulsive Yoshino reveals occasional moments of depth. It’s Ayase and Hirose who leave the deepest impressions, but the ensemble energy is strong—when all the sisters are on screen together their interactions feel light and unforced.
We get the sense that Suzu is exactly what the sisters needed. She keeps their sniping from getting out of hand, and she gives them all a focus that two of them, at least, seemed to be lacking. She also becomes the foil through which they can all examine their own complicated feelings about family—Suzu dearly loved her father and clearly saw a side of him that the other three sisters never did.
I’ve complained about Koreeda’s tendency toward overt sentimentality in films like Still Walking, where unnecessary voiceovers and explanations made things feel contrived or overdone. Our Little Sister’s general lack of such overt drama might cause more than few viewers to label it dull or inconsequential. But as with many of Koreeda’s best films—Maborosi, Nobody Knows—a lot happens beneath the surface. By the end of the film the characters may seem to be in the same place they were at the beginning, but they’ve clearly all had time to re-evaluate their lives and memories. Achieving self-awareness might not seem like a recipe for great cinema, but for this film, and for these characters that you can’t help but love, it’s enough.