The opening shot of Our Little Sister starts on a woman’s silver toenails and sneaks up toward a young couple, naked under a checkered blanket and forest-green bedsheets. Their tranquil morning is quickly disrupted by the obligations of the day: work, chores, grumbling about money. The scene is an outlier in the film, which is set almost entirely in public spaces and treats romance with healthy skepticism. Love seems to rank near the bottom of the Koda sisters’ hierarchy of needs, well below the edifying pleasures of pickled foods, fermented plum liquor, and lovingly critical sisterhood.
The sisters’ hesitance is well-founded. Offspring of a philandering father and a distant mother, they live alone in a hulking country home in Kamakura, a seaside town outside of Tokyo, and individually represent the phases of young adulthood: Sachi (Ayase Haruka), the eldest, is a nurse and a sort of house mother; Yoshimo (Nagasawa Masami) is a sloppy drinker and assistant to a bankruptcy lawyer; and Chika, fun-loving and rudderless, works in an athletic shop. Early in the film, they learn of the death of their father and, at his funeral, meet their reserved young half-sister, Suzu (Hirose Suzu). In a rare moment of impulse, Sachi decides to adopt the 15-year-old.
“Doesn’t that sound like something out of a soap opera?” one of the sisters says early in Our Little Sister, but any moments of seismic family drama have occurred well before the film begins. Like his last film, the lovely and just slightly more trenchant Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest plays like an ABC Family show, where everyday events are slightly colored by unusual family dynamics and montages are set to treacly piano-and-strings arrangements. If the central tensions of Like Father, Like Son were related to issues of class and identity, those of Our Little Sister are tied to genetics and ancestry. Individually, each of the four sisters worries that they’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents, and each reacts differently to the fact that their childhoods were thwarted by grown-up responsibilities.
The film explores these issues with grace, if not enough subtlety. Over two hours, Kore-eda’s adaptation of Akimi Yoshida’s ongoing manga series Umimachi Diary establishes unique relationships and emotional trajectories for each of the Kodas. Suzu becomes a popular student and star athlete, but fears she’s marked as a “bad person” because she’s the product of an adulterous affair. Meanwhile, Sachi wonders whether her impulse to care for others spells doom for her personal life—and to underline the point, she spends the film debating about taking a job in her hospital’s new terminal ward. Such instances of leaden symbolism and thematic hand-holding gradually undermine Kore-eda’s elegant but unfussy compositions. His camera seems to always be in slight, gentle motion, shifting among his exquisitely blocked actors in order to capture their varying reactions to one another’s anxieties. When they speak, though, they rarely seem to say anything we can’t already read on their vividly expressive faces.
Our Little Sister’s reserve, along with its impulse to understanding and forgiveness, soften some of the film’s more piquant observations about tradition and mortality. After one drunken outburst, which finds Suzu reckoning with her troubled upbringing, the sisters mend fences by sentimentally staring out at the family’s grand, longstanding plum tree. Visits from the Kodas’ aunt and mother begin in a state of tension, but quickly melt into sentimentality. “It’s nobody’s fault” becomes a common refrain among the sisters as they cope with their burdensome inheritance; this is a decent sentiment, but a recipe for somewhat inert character development. Nonetheless, Kore-eda still manages to impart a sense of how old customs edify the present. As the sisters prepare massive and lavish meals (as they do in seemingly every other scene of the film), they both honor and update ancestral recipes, turning one of Kore-eda’s primary auteurist tics into an apt metaphor for the Kodas’ unconventional modern family.