By John Esther | July 8, 2016
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Writers: Hirokazu Koreeda, Yoshida Akimi
Starring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryô Kase, Ryôhei Suzuki, Shinobu Ohtake, Takafumi Ikeda
Another saccharine story by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life; Like Father, Like Son), Our Little Sister may be meticulously shot, offer competent and attractive actors — the likes of which we rarely see in American cinema — and told in Japanese with English subtitles, but it as emotionally superficial as a Hollywood movie by the likes of Nancy Myers or Cameron Crowe (except Kore-eda uses Asian actors when the story calls for it).
Based on the best selling manga novel by Yoshida Akimi, Umimachi Diary, Out Little Sister starts off obvious enough and then proceeds down its predictable path before its long overdue comforting conclusion.
Sachi (Haruka Ayase) is the eldest of the three Kôda sisters. The oldest and the most stern, essentially she has been the surrogate mother of the other two after their dad left the family to pursue an extramarital affair and mom (Shinobu Ohtake) abandoned them to grandmother, who then died. A natural caretaker, Sachi not only manages people around the Kôda home, she is the head nurse on a hospital floor dedicated to the terminally ill.
Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) is a rowdy, middle child. Working at a soulless bank and attracted to losers, Yoshina is the less-disciplined soul who likes to party. She and Sachi sometimes quarrel, but it is never long and it is certainly not over serious matters.
The youngest, Chika (Kaho), seems to be a happier person. We do not know much about her other than that she works in a shoe store with her boyfriend, Sanzo (Takafumi Ikeda). Chika does not have much to do in the story other than remind viewers how she barely remembers her father because he left when she was so young.
Living rather harmoniously in their large wooden family house in the Japanese seaside city of Kamakura, their lives are disrupted with news that their estranged dad has died.
In what will be the first of numerous mourning occasions in this funeral and food movie (eating before seeing Our Little Sister is advised), the three sisters meet their adolescent half-sister, Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose).
The sisters immediately bond with the young one and, due to Suzu’s new familial circumstances, the half-sister is invited to come live with the Kôdas. Suzu thinks about it for about a few seconds before agreeing. Hey, what teenager living in the country with her stepmom (Yûko Nakamura) would not want prefer to live with three older sisters in a house by the beach instead?
Suzu’s arrival at her new home is undramatic. Suzu immediately makes friends, joins the soccer team, is fed at home and at the local restaurant (where she seemingly never has to pay), and may even have a boyfriend in the making, Fûta Ozaka (Ohshirô Maeda).
Suzu’s older sisters carry on with their lives. One changes jobs. The other ends an affair. Another decides it is okay for her boyfriend to pursue his passion once again.
The seasons change. Meals are made. Homemade plum wine is consumed. Familial bonds are strengthened.
To get to the end of the film’s 126-minute running time one must endure banal scenes masquerading as the beautiful — riding down a road of cherry blossoms; a pyrotechnic display; the four dress up in kimono; and plum tree picking — to name a few. These aesthetics do not enhance the film or indicate a sign to sisterhood a la female solidarity. Instead they highlight Kore-eda’s attempt to manipulate the viewer at a superficially emotional level. Yoko Kanno’s score only makes this attitude more glaringly obvious.