In the past I’ve called Hirokazu Koreeda’s films “gentle”, which is perhaps a misleading term. It makes the director and his works sound soft and pleasant and, well, sort of nothingy. Which is giving both them and the adjective short shrift – these days especially, both on and off the screen, we could do with more gentleness. It also suggests that it’s easy to underestimate Koreeda and his films, because doing what he does – and, more importantly, doing it well – is exceedingly challenging. Koreeda’s films have an uplifting humanity that is sadly rare, not just in cinema.
The director’s 2015 film, Our Little Sister (based on the manga series Umimachi Diary, which I haven’t read), received quite a few reviews that were damning with gentle praise, so to speak. They mentioned that while Koreeda’s movies rarely thrive on overt conflict, this one had barely any conflict, telling a tale that lacked stakes. It is true that Our Little Sister is fairly light on plot, and it most definitely does not set up character conflicts in order to drive what plot there is. Nevertheless, critics that call the film ‘lesser Koreeda’ miss its subtleties.
Our Little Sister tells the story of the three Kouda sisters, Sachi, Yoshino and Chika, who receive news of the death of their estranged father, a man they haven’t seen in 15 years after he left the family for the woman he’d had an affair with. At the funeral, they meet their younger half-sister, Suzu – and invite her to live with them, in the house the sisters have been sharing ever since their mother up and left them as teenagers to fend for themselves. The sisters’ relationship, while loving, isn’t entirely smooth, and especially Sachi, the oldest, is clearly critical of Yoshino and Chika, not least because of their relationships. Some of this seems to be projection, though, as Sachi seems to see the faults of their parents, their lack of responsibility, and the mistakes they made in their own relationships, in her sisters – and in herself: Sachi, who works as a nurse, is romantically involved with a married doctor. Suzu entering her sisters’ lives makes her a living reminder of the parents who abandoned the Kouda girls, forcing Sachi into the role of de-facto parent to all of them, yet at the same time it also reminds Sachi of the ways in which she falls short of the standards she’s set up for herself and her siblings.
While the existing tensions between the sisters and Sachi’s hangups do not result in the big confrontation you might expect from a different film from a very different filmmaker, they definitely make Our Little Sister into more than the pleasant but minor tale of sisterly love some critics saw in it. More than that, there is a melancholy streak that goes through the film and a preoccupation with mortality and with the question of what we leave behind, a theme that Koreeda has worked with before. The sisters remark more than once that while their parents were disappointing, weak and selfish, the defiant statement mixed with more than a trace of fear that they may have those sides themselves; but they also note that it’s thanks to their parents that they have each other, including their newly found sister. As much as Suzu makes them face up to the memory of the father who mainly left them with the memory of his absence, they come to care deeply for her and find in her an opportunity to reexamine who they’ve become and who they want to be.
In an echo of Koreeda’s early masterpiece, After Life, a scene towards the end of Our Little Sister finds the sisters preoccupied with the question of what memory they want to leave behind once they die. This is not an exceptional moment of sadness: death is rarely far removed from Koreeda’s stories, lingering insistently at the edges, and while the film’s dominant tone isn’t sad, it is no stranger to loss and mourning. It is these themes and how they are tied into the characters’ development that make Our Little Sister into much more than a kind, sweet, forgettable tale of sisterly love.