Like a haiku poem, the beauty of the Japanese film “Our Little Sister” lies in its simplicity.
Adapted from the graphic novel “Umimachi Diary” by Yoshida Akimi, three sisters venture to Yamagata for the funeral of the “useless” father who left them for another woman years before. There they discover they have a 13-year-old half-sister, Suzu, whose mother has also died.
As their train is about to leave the station for home, the eldest daughter, realizing that this shy girl had most likely cared for their father in his last days and has no connection with his current wife, impulsively invites Suzu to live with them.
If this were an American film, this would lead to high drama and histrionics from the younger sisters. Here, even though she hadn’t consulted her sisters, they both immediately jump up and down in delight. Clearly, we are not in Kansas anymore.
Thus begins the journey of this new little family. Suzu Hirose gives a lovely performance as young Suzu. Her striking face is pensive when we see her, and when she smiles for the first time it is magical. When Suzu goes to her new school, she is warmly welcomed by all of her classmates and teachers. (Refreshingly, we can put aside any worry of bullying or mean girls clichés.) Although she harbors guilt for her father having left her sisters, she is thrilled with her new siblings, even when they are arguing over purloined sweaters. (Some things are universal.)
The Koda sisters have distinct personalities. The eldest, Sachi, played by the radiant Haruka Ayase, is a nurse involved with a married pediatrician. Banker Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) is the party girl (“A boyfriend makes even the worst job seem OK.”). Kooky Chiko (Kaho) works in a sporting goods store and dates a co-worker who lost six toes climbing Mount Everest.
One writer referred to the film as “Japanese Gilmore Girls” and the town does have a Stars Hollow warmth to it. The family home in Kamakura is old but cozy and the girls maintain the family tradition of making homemade noodles and plum wine. (“Everything worthwhile takes time.”) They frequent a local restaurant where the owner has cooked for the girls since they were little.
The film covers the next year of their lives. Sachi has a fractured relationship with her mother, who returns for their grandmother’s memorial, and the irony of her own affair with a married man is not lost on her. Even the characters of the mother and the lover are nuanced and complex.
Director Hirokazu Koreeda (“Like Father, Like Son”) treats this film like the girls treat their traditions – with painstaking attention to detail. Cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto has crafted a feature-length travelogue for Japan, with spectacular scenery of the seaside and mountains, and glorious cherry blossoms that put D.C. to shame. This is not the sleek, fast-paced Tokyo of anime but the open-air train and hanging laundry for which Kanno Yoko’s sparse score is the perfect accompaniment.
“Our Little Sister” is a serene, enchanting film that transports us to another, gentler world. Like plum wine, it warms you inside.
Take your sisters.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
“Our Little Sister”
Starring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa and Suzu Hirose
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Rated: PG for thematic elements and brief language.
Running time: 128 minutes
The lowdown: Three young women in Japan invite their 13-year-old half-sister to live with them. In Japanese with English subtitles.