In the last 10 years, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda has enjoyed his biggest international success exploring family matters. Whether it’s the abandoned-children opus Nobody Knows, the grieving-family drama Still Walking, or the switched-at-birth tearjerker Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda has shown an affinity for probing the ways that those closest to us cast a long shadow over our lives—even after they’re dead.
His latest, Our Little Sister, exudes the same sentimental, unhurried tone of Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son, and to be sure it’s a simple tale without many surprises. But in Kore-eda’s hands, that slightness can feel elemental, timeless. He fills his movie with such sympathetic souls you might not mind that he’s not saying much new about sibling relationships or being someone’s child well into adulthood.
The movie opens as three adult sisters—Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho)—discover that their long-absent father has died. Traveling to his funeral, the women (all in their 20s) realize they’re finally going to meet their half-sister, 13-year-old Suzu (Suzu Hirose), a daughter he had with his new wife after abandoning them and their mother. But instead of being hostile toward Suzu, the women feel a strange kinship to her, inviting the teenager to move in with them in their family’s house.
Based on Yoshida Akimi’s graphic novel Umimachi Diary, Our Little Sister centers on four characters, although three of them receive the most scrutiny. The Koda sisters are all unmarried, living together in their family home but with their own lives. Sachi, the oldest, is a nurse and has always been an overachiever, which makes the fact that she’s secretly dating a married man all the more shameful to her. (Part of her shame comes from the recognition that she’s despised her father for, essentially, doing the same thing as she’s doing now: having an affair and potentially breaking a family apart.) Yoshino works at a bank and is generally directionless, while Chika spends her time at a dead-end job at a sporting goods store.
None of these women are in any sort of immediate peril, but their unspoken desire to adopt Suzu as their own child speaks to unacknowledged longings. Does Suzu understand the Kodas’ ulterior motives? Kore-eda won’t say, and boosted by Hirose’s understated performance Our Little Sister keeps Suzu a teasing mystery. That’s appropriate for a character who the other women don’t necessarily look at as a person. Rather, the Kodas seem to be searching for some hints into the man their father became. Consequently, Suzu is a riddle that they all delicately want to solve.
But it won’t be that easy. As the Kodas spend more time with the young woman, she starts to assert an influence on them. First, it’s Chika, who finds in Suzu the playmate she never had growing up since Sachi and Yoshino were always so much older than she was. Most intriguingly, Sachi starts to view Suzu as an excuse to act out against her mother. It turns out the eldest daughter never quite forgave her for Dad leaving, resulting in a simmering resentment that plays out in poignant, painful ways in Our Little Sister.
Because Kore-eda focuses on the minutiae of ordinary lives, his family dramas always risk shriveling into inconsequence, their wistful temperament sometimes hard to distinguish from sappiness. Composer Yoko Kanno’s piano-heavy arrangements lovingly underscore what occurs onscreen, although the music can occasionally tip over into mawkishness. And those familiar with Kore-eda’s recent films will recognize recurring themes of generational divide and romantic uncertainty.
And yet, Our Little Sister moves so intuitively from scene to scene with a natural, inevitable lilt that the film’s echoes to previous Kore-eda dramas simply feel like a director returning to subject matter that intrigues him. Everything about Our Little Sister is gentle: The ironies are mild, the plot twists are moderate, and the revelations are modest. But Kore-eda doesn’t seem interested in searing drama. His family films, with the exception of the bleak Nobody Knows, are about asking the big questions with a light touch. Mortality, forgiveness, love, our purpose on this planet: These are the topics with which Our Little Sister wrestles, though never with life-or-death urgency.
Deep down, Kore-eda perhaps recognizes that the characters he chronicles aren’t stunningly original creations. They’re not meant to be: They’re supposed to be folks like any of us. By keeping Our Little Sister intimate but unassuming, he’s made yet another film that washes over you, warm and refreshing, and then dissipates just as quickly.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Writers: Hirokazu Kore-eda (screenplay); Yoshida Akimi (graphic novel)
Starring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose
Release Date: Screening in Competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.