This plot suggests that the film could become an explosive family melodrama, with the introduction of Suzu potentially rupturing the close bond between the elder sister Sachi, middle child Yoshino and youngest sibling Chika. Instead, Suzu proves to be a unifying force and a refreshing presence. While Sachi, Yoshino and Chika lead comfortable lives, all three of them seem to have settled into a routine without questioning their circumstances. When Suzu enters the picture, she seems to inspire the three sisters to re-examine their family history, and reconsider their relationships and careers.
Based on a manga by Akimi Yoshida, Our Little Sister revisits themes from screenwriter and director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous family dramas such as Still Walking, I Wish and Like Father, Like Son, where the prominence of children, the pressures of family life and a sense of mortality are integral to the story. Kore-eda quickly establishes the characteristics of each sister up to and during the father’s funeral, and then uses a slow pace and the understated performances of the lead actresses to gradually develop the characters, showing the differences and similarities between the women.
We come to understand that the teenage Suzu is very mature for her age and has had to grow up quickly due to caring for her ailing father, meaning she has much in common with the sensible eldest sister Sachi, who essentially took on the responsibility of being head of the family because Sachi’s mother has also been absent for some time. In contrast to Sachi and Suzu, Yoshino and Chika seem more spontaneous and light-hearted, and have been able to retain their youthful spirit because they have not quite embraced the responsibilities of adulthood.
Not only is it convincing that these women are all sisters and share certain traits, but their distinctive lives are also shown. Sachi is often restrained and seemingly coolheaded, but the responsibilities of her hospital job, running the house and effectively being a parent to Yoshino and Chika, show in the strain on her face, although she maintains her composure throughout. Yoshino is more whimsical and probably the most immature of the sisters, seemingly refusing to grow up. However, as her job changes, we see her grow into a more sensible and sensitive adult.
Chika is perhaps the least developed main character in the film, but she also seems the most content. Nevertheless, Suzu’s arrival makes Chika think back to her hazy recollections of her father, a man she barely knew, with Suzu sharing memories about her father with Chika. As for Suzu, we see that moving in with the three sisters immediately makes her a happier person, giving her a stable home environment and an enjoyable school life with new friends.
Kore-eda’s technique is understated, with much of the drama unfolding in leisurely paced scenes. There are a couple of striking shots that stand out, the first being a bicycle journey through a cherry blossom tunnel and the second a reflection of a fireworks display on water, both of which are splashes of movement and colour signifying moments of joy for Suzu. On the whole, though, Our Little Sister utilises a muted palette and exercises restraint in its camerawork, which is perfectly suited to the material. The result is a subtle and serene film, a seemingly straightforward story about family life that is quietly profound.
Review by Martyn Bamber
Our Little Sister is out now on home entertainment.