Family Ties

Nick Pinkerton on Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister

Hirokazu Koreeda, Our Little Sister, 2016, color, sound, 126 minutes.

HIROKAZU KOREEDA’S OUR LITTLE SISTER provides more than a few picturesque views—though at bottom it’s about the torturous process that needs to be gone through before those views can be enjoyed, of letting down a fixed smile long enough to relieve a jealously guarded core of anger. The film is set in a family home populated entirely by young women, people who are honestly fond of one another to the point of being mortified at the prospect of causing each other pain. Nary an unkind word that’s said between them isn’t almost immediately regretted, and the presence of aggrieved masculine ego that added a few tense moments to Koreeda’s last film, Like Father, Like Son (2013), is largely missing in this female-centric movie. It isn’t until the film’s second half, when the women’s absentee mother shows up, that anything like a real fight even occurs. To find an American film as conflict-averse you’d have to look to the recent output of Richard Linklater, who’s cultivated a laid-back, specifically Texan front-porch equivalent to the Japanese mono no aware.

Three sisters are the lone occupants of a big, old, airy family house in the seaside town of Kamakura, Japan, an inheritance from their deceased grandmother, the last relative who thought to provide for them. Through bits of conversation accompanying the women’s quotidian domestic undertakings, we begin to assemble the circumstances behind their menage. Their father, whose death they’ve just received word of as the film begins, abandoned the household to shack up with another woman years ago, and their own mother has been gone for nearly as long. From the way that she scolds her younger sisters for their table manners, it’s evident that the eldest sister, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), has become accustomed to playing parent to both youngest Chika (Kaho) and middle sister Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa). Sachi soon has another responsibility, for her father left a fourteen-year-old daughter born of his deceased second wife with his widow, the third wife. After meeting their half-sister—the sweet, self-contained, mannerly, and seemingly unwanted Suzu (Suzu Hirose)—at his funeral in the northern province of Yamagata, the sisters impulsively invite her to come and live with them.

Though the perspective of Our Little Sister isn’t exclusively aligned to that of Sachi, she has a certain gravity that makes her stand out from her siblings: While they express their joy and sorrow with more freedom, her smile struggles against an omnipresent anxiety, a waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop vexation. In Suzu she sees something of a kindred old soul who has never enjoyed the luxury of being sheltered. Suzu nursed their dying father, while Sachi is starting a job at the new terminal ward in the hospital at which she works. These parallels between characters would be obvious even if they didn’t talk about them—Koreeda has the ability to compress an enormous amount of expression into parsimonious reaction shots—but they talk about them nevertheless. There is a fair amount of dialogue of the sort that screenwriting textbooks pejoratively refer to as “on-the-nose,” though as someone who has had quite a few on-the-nose conversations, I was never certain why this was a problem, per se. The sense is that of people who know one another backwards and forwards, in the quirks that allow them to indulge the little games of family resemblance that are such an essential aspect of the mythology that is family.

Hirokazu Koreeda, Our Little Sister, 2016, color, sound, 126 minutes.

A Japanese viewer might know these characters intimately from the get-go, for Koreeda’s screenplay adapts Umimachi Diary, a popular josei manga (comics aimed at a female readership) from the writer/artist Akimi Yoshida which has been on newsstands since 2006. Yoshida serves as Koreeda’s guide into a world where men are tangential: The absent father, or the married doctor coworker (stone-faced Ryôhei Suzuki) with whom Sachi carries on a discreet affair, all the while living in mortal terror that something of her father’s fecklessness has worn off on her. While unique in its largely feminine milieu, Our Little Sister is in other respects very much in keeping with the fifty-four-year-old Koreeda’s body of work. He shows off signature moves that include a fondness for briskly hopping between interior and exterior coverage of the same scene; framings that skirt the obvious (summer fireworks are only shown reflected in the water and in a partially obscured views from a neighboring rooftop); a preference for looking at the aftermath of ugly and traumatic experiences rather than the ugly and traumatic experiences themselves, which leaves him open to charges of fastidiousness; and seemingly static set-ups which upon closer observation reveal a slight panning motion, as though registering the turning of the earth. Like several of Koreeda’s recent films, including Like Father, Like Son—of which Steven Spielberg is planning an American remake—his latest has at its center an abandoned child, though this is hardly a subject unique to him in cinema, a medium often used as a babysitter and which consequently hosts a preponderance of orphans.

Andrew Sarris once wrote of François Truffaut, author of the prototypical abandoned-child film The 400 Blows (1959), that he was “always tempted to be touching.” The same might be said of Koreeda, but the thing is, his films really are very touching. He may come off like a softie next to the young Truffaut, not to speak of, say, the mauling Maurice Pialat of L’Enfance Nue (1969)—even next to his younger self, perhaps—but no emotion in Our Little Sister seems dishonest, and if we can routinely praise artists who whittle down their means of expression with the passage of time, why should those who take a turn for greater openness and accessible clarity be held guilty of commercial concession? Is the quintessence of artistic progress really a kind of drying up and blowing away?

Not the least touching aspect of Our Little Sister is how it fits into a lineage of low-key Japanese domestic dramas stretching back beyond the prewar days of old hands like Yasujirō Shimazu—and the impulse to reattach severed lines of family tradition runs through the movie. The departed (dead and still living) are present in both the household shrine and memorial ceremonies, but perhaps most palpably felt when brought rushing to sense-memory through a familiar recipe, in which the film abounds: whitebait on toast, homemade plum wine, fried mackerel. There is a great deal to be said for simple dishes, prepared well.

Our Little Sister opens in select US theaters on Friday, July 8.