There were a couple of points during “Our Little Sister” where director Hirokazu Kore-eda fooled me into thinking the movie was over. A couple of scenes end with a swelling of music and a slow fade to black, and I thought, “That’s it. Show’s over.” And then it goes on.
But what really fooled me was that, instead of following a conventional plot structure, “Our Little Sister” is so episodic. The film’s original Japanese title is “Umimachi Diary,” and the movie unfolds like a series of diary entries, graceful little scenes of ordinary life. Kore-eda puts these little moments together like tiles in a mosaic, creating a moving picture of familial love and resilience.
The film centers on three adult sisters, all living together in their old family home. We learn that their father abandoned them 15 years ago, and their mother left the year after that, leaving the three girls to fend for themselves. They survived, and thrived together. Sachi (Haruka Ayase) is the responsible one, Chika(Kaho) the free-spirited romantic one, and Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) the quirky one.
Word comes that their father, who started a new family and never came back to visit, has died of a terminal illness. Dutifully, but without much emotion, they go to the funeral, and discover they have a 15-year-old half-sister, Suzu (Suzu Hirose). On impulse, they invite Suzu to come home and live with them.
It’s that kind of casual kindness that permeates “Our Little Sister,” as the three older sisters bond with the new member of their family. The film is gentle and beautiful to look at, the frame sometimes stuffed with characters to suggest the satisfying chaos of family life, other times still with quiet contemplation.
Conditioned by American dramas, we expect some big conflict to materialize between the sisters. But it never does – they’re too empathetic towards each other to let a hard feeling last. Even when the sisters’ irresponsible mother comes and rashly suggests selling the house from underneath them, it doesn’t upset the equilibrium of the house for long.
As Kore-eda reveals more and more about the daughters’ past, we see their lives mirroring their parents in some ways. Sachi is dating a married doctor at her hospital, putting her in the shoes of the other woman who broke up her family. While the memories of their parents are freshest for Sachi and Suzu, Yoshino and Chika hardly remember, unburdened by the past.
Much of the film is about legacies, what parents leave for their children both good and bad. The sisters’ father was irresponsible and selfish, but his actions have inadvertently provided them with a new sister to love.
There’s an extraordinary scene late in the film when fireworks go off over the water at their seaside town, and the sisters all watch, but from different locations. Suzu is out on a boat, Chika is on the roof of her office building, Yoshino in her store. But they all feel connected somehow. And then the scene fades to black and you think it’s a perfect ending. But the movie, and life, continues.