For the last 25 years, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has been making good, interesting films, and I’ve liked them a lot. But it’s taken me until now, with his latest film, to go from admiration of his work to actually falling in love with it. He’s not flashy at all. His films don’t indulge in high tension or suspense. Kore-eda tells stories of ordinary people’s lives, often emphasizing children, their relationships with parents and each other, and their efforts to get by on their own in the world. In films like Nobody Knows, I Wish, and Like Father, Like Son, he has demonstrated great empathy for the experiences of young people, never indulging in the sort of contrived plotting that would interfere with his gentle observational style.
His latest film is called Our Little Sister. The characters are a little older in this one: three sisters in their 20s living in a country house that belonged to their late grandmother. As the film opens, they’ve learned that their father has died, and they’re preparing to go to the memorial in another city. We gradually learn that he had left their mother for another woman years ago, and their mother in turn had left them in the care of their grandmother while she went off to make a new life. When they go to the memorial, they meet for the first time their half-sister Suzu, their father’s 14-year-old daughter by his second wife, who had died young.
Now, a more conventional story might exploit all this for melodrama—tensions with the daughter of the woman who broke up the family, and so forth. Instead, the sisters immediately take to their new sibling, who is very sweet and open-hearted, and they ask her to come live with them. The film then follows about a year in the life of the four sisters. They each have distinctive personalities. The oldest sister, Sachi, played by Haruka Ayase, basically brought up the other two, and ever since she’s been over serious and burdened by responsibility. The second oldest, Yoshino, is very romantic, a dreamer. The third, Chika, is whimsical and fun-loving.
Other than a visit from the mother, which produces some tension between her and the oldest daughter, there’s no plot in the usual sense. We just watch the development of intimacy between the three young women and their new sister Suzu, played by the luminous Suzu Hirose. Yet I felt not a single moment of boredom or impatience with this film—the natural flow of incidents, including relationships with boys, friends, and older people; the moments of fun, contentment, sadness, and occasional conflict; all create, in a seemingly magical fashion, a sense of beauty and joy and happiness that is so clear, so palpable that it imparts a sense of redemption through love, through the awareness of love as a real and existing thing in our everyday life. If only we would open our eyes to see it—which is exactly what Kore-eda’s marvelous film allows us to do. When’s the last time you experienced bliss by watching a movie? Our Little Sister is a tender affirmation of life.