Our Little Sister

I mentioned last post that I saw a wonderful movie at the Victoria Film Fest earlier in February—a movie I had no expectations about and which completely surprised me with its understated beauty.

Our Little Sister is a 2015 Japanese movie by Hirokazu Kore-eda about three sisters in their 20s who live together in Kamakura and take in their 13-year-old half sister after their father dies. In Japanese, it’s called Umimachi Diary which means “seaside town diary.”

It’s a quiet film that relies on subtle storytelling and believable characters to give it it its emotional depth. None of it feels sentimental and none of the four sisters conform to easy stereotypes. Each sister was her own character and got fairly equal screen treatment, which I felt was a wise move.

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The sisters live in their grandmother’s house that they refer to as the “girls’ dorm.” Sachi, Yoshina, and Chika Kouda have grown up in this home by themselves. The eldest, Sachi, inadvertently became the mom to the younger two after their father had an affair and their parents divorced. Their father remarried, having another daughter Suzu. The girls’ mom had some sort of breakdown and left them shortly after their father did.

The three Kouda sisters meet their half-sister at their father’s funeral (whom they hadn’t seen in 15 years). They take Suzu in because her stepmother is not a great caregiver (Suzu’s mom had died earlier), and Suzu is happy to join them. She is a gentle and sweet presence in their lives and they love looking after her, but her addition in the “girls’ dorm” also brings up a lot of memories and unhealed wounds from the past.

I love that the sisters felt so human, so nuanced, so relatable. Having a sister myself, I found a lot to identify with, but you don’t need to be a sister to appreciate this film.

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Sachi is responsible, loving, cautious, lonely, and, as it turns  out, still angry at her mom and still so eager for her love. She is a senior nurse in palliative care at the local hospital, unhappily involved in a relationship with a married man.

Yoshina (Yoshi) is the high-heeled wearing reckless middle sister (not that reckless, she just drinks too much) and isn’t afraid to confront people about their actions (like her older sister’s pent-up anger). She has a decent job at a bank. Her compassion is really poignant closer to the end of the film when she has to consult clients about filing for bankruptcy and asks Sachi for advice about how to do her job well and not bring it home with her so much.

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Chika is the somewhat nerdy and free spirited youngest child who, according to the other two, has “weird taste in men.” She works at a sports store and is the peacemaker when familial tensions get tight. But her depth comes out too, like when she wants to know from Suzu what their dad was like. None of the other sisters ask Suzu this, even though they’re all yearning to know. It’s not surprising that Chika forms the closest relationship with Suzu, being the closest in age.

Suzu is quiet, thoughtful, and wise beyond her years. You feel her tension of being caught between sisterly love and a heightened sensitivity about her very existence bringing pain to those she loves: “Someone is always hurt, just because I’m here.”

This is a movie that made me laugh and made me weep. I was watching a family that was beautiful and messy and full of joy and sadness and everything in between. All those ideas were wrapped up in the recurring motif of cherry blossom trees, symbolic to Japanese culture of the beauty and fragility of life, the acceptance of loss and the hope of new growth.

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