Our Little Sister
海街 Diary 「Umimachi Diary」
Japanese Release Date: June 13th, 2015
UK Cinema Release Date: April 15th, 2016
UK Home Video Release Date: June 13th, 2016
Running Time: 126 mins.
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Writer: Shin Adachi (Screenplay), Akimi Yoshida (Original Manga)
Starring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Shinobu Otake, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Ryo Kase, Jun Fubuki, Ryohei Suzuki, Oshiro Maeda, Lily Franky, Kirin Kiki
Hirokazu Koreeda has become the director of choice for film fans worldwide who are eager to get an intimate slice of normal Japanese life and Our Little Sister is his latest in a career mostly (but not always) spent making films focussing on families. The story is adapted from a manga called Umimachi Diary (Seaside Town Diary) created by Akimi Yoshida and Koreeda uses cinema to showcase her tales of a female-led family facing different emotional hurdles and ultimately knitting together. Prepare to become part of a family, a community, and a way of life.
The film begins with three sisters. 29-year-old Sachi Kouda (Haruka Ayase) is a nurse at the local hospital and the mature one. 22-year-old Yoshino Kouda (Masami Nagasawa) is a bank teller and a party girl who likes to love and leave men. The youngest is 19-year-old Chika Kouda (Kaho) who is a shop assistant and an oddball with a unique taste in clothes and boyfriends. They live in a house once owned by their grandmother in the seaside city of Kamakura.
It is an old-fashioned rambling house with sliding doors, paper screens, rich wooden furnishings and family heirlooms. Their parents are divorced. Their father left the family for another woman fifteen years ago and their mother doing likewise from shame and frustration.
When they learn of their father’s death, the three sisters head north to a hot spring in Yamagata prefecture so they can attend his funeral and it is here where they meet their 14-year-old half-sister Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose), an innocent looking girl in her sailor uniform and the result of the affair that broke up the sister’s family.
From the very first moment the four meet it is clear that Suzu is a responsible and earnest girl and the more Sachi talks to her the more she gets the sense that Suzu took care of their father in his dying days. What’s more, it becomes obvious that there is nobody at the funeral who really cares for her. Sachi makes a spur of the moment decision and invites Suzu to join the sisters in Kamakura. Suzu hesitates but only for a moment and she accepts the offer and the three women gain a younger sister.
And so begins an enchanting tale of Suzu’s integration into her new family and her new home which is a seaside town audiences will long to visit. The film is made up of a series of incidents in the lives of the sisters but they stack up to show how a community and family come together and achieve a sort of harmony.
The setting is an idealised Japan. Kamakura is a slightly slow but peaceful place where timeless traditions such as summer festivals, watching fireworks, gathering to celebrate the haul of fish from the sea, and more modern things such as cheering on the school football team draw everyone together, even outsiders like Suzu who finds her football skills make her a star. The house the four sisters live in is the focal point in an idyllic fantasy. It comes complete with family heirlooms and a shrine and a garden full of plum trees planted by the sister’s grandmother and tended to by them as they carry on the family tradition of making plum wine. It all suggests stability and safety, a haven and continuity.
Suzu can use the house as a base from which she can safely explore the past.
A trip to a seaside restaurant with friends for whiting on toast leads to her meeting her father’s old friend (Lily Franky). A post football match celebration at the Sea Cat Diner reveals the owner (Jun Fubuki) is a family friend with a treasure trove of embarrassing tales about the three sisters from when they were Suzu’s age. These reminisces about the past add to the present tense narrative as well as giving funny little anecdotes which delight audiences and Suzu. The tales prompt Suzu to open up about her memories and this helps the others around her.
This isn’t just Suzu’s tale because the three sisters benefit from her presence as they hear more about their father from the recent past and come to terms with long simmering disappointments and betrayals his actions fostered. The new perspective Suzu brings allows them to mature and these changes make the story richer as more plot threads are added. Two of the sisters get promotions at work, Sachi being asked to take charge of a new terminal care ward and Yoshino rising from bank teller to loan manager. Their new jobs give them, and by extension the audience, the opportunity to get to know their town more intimately and this helps when it comes to investing emotions into the community.
The film’s script never forgets anyone and joins different character’s narrative threads together into a cord that represents a community, a supportive one. Koreeda unpacks these nurturing moments through his typical considered pace and so the story feels natural, a slice of life. There is nothing contrived about the meeting of characters as they reminisce about the past and consider their present and the film’s script achieves a rich emotional tone through a series of subplots that coalesce into a quiet and pleasurable series of crescendoes.
Koreeda’s relaxed observation of the family interactions leaves the audience free to see the subtleties of the performances. One of the chief joys of the films is the way Koreeda uses the camera to frame scenes with a serene and simple style, allowing actors to establish a position in a location and then letting the audience see them perform. We can sit back and get thoroughly absorbed in the growing emotional connections between the characters as they slowly reveal what is on their minds, Sachi and her worries for the future and Suzu holding regrets for the past.
Patient camera work means shots linger on a fine ensemble working together with great chemistry who, through subtle and engaging acting show the changing emotional states. Haruka Ayase is absolutely perfect as a sort of de facto matriarch of the family. Her patient and kind face breaking with frowns of consternation or a smile of happiness as she navigates her family’s thorny history. Suzu Hirose in her debut performance is a fantastic find as she captures the innocence of her character perfectly. The whole cast is brilliant but the final word goes to the location. Kamakura is gorgeous and seductive. Every shot is beautiful but the best is one scene where Suzu rides pillion on a bicycle down a road lined with cherry blossoms in full bloom. It is spectacular. The locations are an absolute delight made better with the great company. You are brought into the care of a group of beautiful community that you will enjoy staying with and will want to revisit multiple times.
Our Little Sister is a movie that could only have been made in Japan, a nation which has a cinema dedicated to making so many female-driven films and a nation that isn’t afraid to make them as pleasant and subtle as this. The typically patient and fine direction from Koreeda and perfect acting from the talented cast makes this a relaxing and emotionally fulfilling experience that makes this so enjoyable to watch.
Our Little Sister/Umimachi Diary is an award-winning film that was at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Vancouver and the BFI London Film Festival which is a statement on how much of a household name Hirokazu Koreeda is and this film won four Japanese Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Lighting.
This film has toured the festival circuit Hirokazu Kore-eda is when it comes to cinephiles. His critical success has been well-earned when you consider that he is the auteur behind Kiseki, Nobody Knows, After Life, Still Walking, and Like Father, Like Son, films which prove very popular with international audiences and critics. I have seen at least six of his films so far and think that he is one of the best directors in Japan currently working.