Three sisters bring their 13-year-old half sister to live with them after the death of their father.

An elegant domestic drama

Three sisters live together in their grandmother’s ramshackle house in the provincial Japanese seaside city of Kamakura. The eldest, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), is a head nurse in a cancer ward, while at home she plays stern dorm mother. The middle sister, Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), works in a bank, drinks too much and dates a succession of losers. The youngest, Chika (Kaho) is 19. She sells shoes by day and giggles and eats a lot the rest of the time.

When the sisters learn that their estranged father has died, they attend his funeral in a distant town. For the first time they meet their beautiful and poised 13-year-old half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose), who is now an orphan. Deciding on a whim to take her home with them, the older sisters bring her into their family, and in the following years, wounds are healed, secrets are uncovered and new memories are made.

‘With its unhurried pacing, loving focus on female faces and seasonal rituals, and its affectionate detailing of domestic life , Our Little Sister will bring up Ozu comparisons again.’

Adapted from the manga 'Umimachi Diary' by Akimi Yoshida, Our Little Sister is a classic Japanese family drama. It’s elegant, quiet, beautifully composed and unashamedly sentimental. Writer-director-editor Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films have encompassed a variety of styles and subject matter, from supernatural drama After Life (1998) to blow-up doll-come-to-life fantasy Air Doll (2009) and a realist docu-style film about children left alone in a Tokyo apartment, Nobody Knows (2004). But it’s Kore-eda’s grief-infused, observational family dramas like Still Walking (2008) and the baby-swap tragedy Like Father, Like Son (2013) that have had critics rushing to compare him to acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu (Tokyo Story). With its unhurried pacing, loving focus on female faces and seasonal rituals, and its affectionate detailing of domestic life – funerals, cooking, the making of plum wine from the 55-year-old tree in the garden – Our Little Sister will bring up Ozu comparisons again.

Perhaps it’s churlish to always long for novelty, but unlike Kore-eda’s Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son – both of which brought freshness to the classical style – Our Little Sister feels overly familiar, as if we’ve seen this kind of story, treated in exactly this manner, too many times before. There are black-clad family funerals and tragi-comical visits to shrines; characters walking up a hill towards a stationary camera, umbrellas appearing as their carriers rise into frame; cherry-blossom bike-rides and lyrical reminiscences over simple meals of whitebait on toast and seafood curry.

This is not to deny the sensitivity and sweetness that are brought to the story, nor the performances of the actresses, who are all excellent. Most affecting of all is Suzo Hirose as the little sister, a well-adjusted girl who slowly reveals the pain she lives with: that her mother was the woman who destroyed the sisters’ family by falling in love with their married father. “Someone is always hurt, just because I exist,” she confesses to the kindly café-proprietor who feeds her after school and tells her she’s a treasure. Nicely mirroring this quandary is eldest sister Sachi’s involvement with a married doctor.

For those looking for challenging cinema, Our Little Sister is handsome but decidedly middlebrow. Yet there’s no doubting the film’s commitment to a compassionate understanding of the complexities of the human heart.



Watch 'Our Little Sister'

Saturday 29 January, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies
Sunday 30 January, 6:15am on SBS World Movies
Monday 31 January, 2:50pm on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand

Japan, 2015
Genre: Comedy
Language: Japanese
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Ryô Kase

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2 hours 8 min
In Cinemas 14 May 2015,
Thu, 01/01/1970 - 20