Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Staring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Rated: PG (For thematic elements and brief language)
Imagine you are with two of your siblings, sitting around the dinner table, when you get news that your father, who left all of you fifteen years ago, has died recently. The news would likely be tragic, but in the case of the Koda sisters, they take the news with stride. Their father did indeed leave them almost fifteen years ago. They have since moved on, and the news of his passing only affects them so much as they need to decide who is going to go to the funeral to represent the family. Now then, imagine you get to the funeral and discover that not only did your dad leave your family to be with another woman, but produced a child with that second woman. I would personally find the situation to be awkward, but, this being Japanese culture, the sisters humbly acknowledge their new sister and continue throughout their day. Finally, imagine that you discover the woman your father left the family for died; he got remarried, and now that new step-sister you have just heard about has nowhere to live.
This slightly awkward situation has now turned into a very personal, extremely tense situation. Again though, this is Japan, so the oldest Koda sister politely invites her newly discovered step sister to come live with them in their family home in Kamakura. From what I have just described you may think that what I am reviewing will be either a slap stick comedy, or a very serious melodrama with lots of shouting and blunt revelations. This may have been the case if this movie had been made in America, England, France, or even Mexico. This is not a typical situation for even the average non-religious family, and so emotions will run high. “Our Little Sister” is a Japanese film though, coming from a culture that is polite and observant. The people there tend to keep things bottled up within, tend to be a little passive aggressive at times, but also have this uncanny ability to be observant and obedient.
When the oldest sister Sachi (Haruka Ayase) invites Suzu (Suzu Hirose) to come live with them, it is partly out of pity, yes, but also out of family duty. For better or worse, family is family in Japan, even if that family came from a woman that helped ruin your childhood. There is more to this living arrangement than just family honor though; there is, deep down, a hope that they will be able to know their estranged father better through this young girl. After all, Suzu is the one who spent the most time with him during his final years, and this may be the last chance any of the older sisters have at knowing what he was like in the end. It is this mixture of honor and curiosity that makes the interactions between these four girls so fascinating and emotional to witness. Also, though the director probably didn't intend this, as a foreigner watching this, there is an additional layer of cultural observation to be had.
So much so that as I watched the movie I wondered how an American would make this film. I came to the conclusion that there would be lots of sarcasm. There might be a bit of mean spiritedness at play. Characters would be in each other's face about their feelings towards one another and most would say what was on their mind. Because Japanese culture is different, the average American viewer will have to pay more attention to subtle tones in the characters voices, the silent movements of their body language, to fully understand how each sister feels about what is going on. They will have to note how the silent tension slowly disappears over the course of the movie, as the sisters come to see their new visitor as a true member of the family rather than an unexpected responsibility that was dropped in their laps out of the blue one day.
Cell phones will have to be turned off, as only the most observant of viewers will be able to take in what a wonderful character drama this is. Even the ending, which in most people's eyes will seem anti-climactic, takes on a whole new meaning when you factor these silent feelings into the equation. Then the movie becomes poetic and timeless, full of truth and beauty that most films fail to achieve. “Our Little Sister” is the type of observant character drama that can only come from a culture that has the utmost respect for its viewers. For that reason alone the film will be wasted on most Americans. There is an audience – however small it might be – for intimacy in the cinema these days, and for those select groups of people, “Our Little Sister” is a full course meal.
Parents, there is some mild language and a love affair, but nothing is explicit. Recommended for ages 7 and up.