Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister

Only Japanese cinema could produce such an effortlessly uplifting film about a fractured family. The three Koda sisters have long been estranged from their prodigal father, but when they attend his funeral, they discover their fifteen-year-old stepsister is a keeper. The same is true of her film. Hirokazu Kore-eda brings his characteristic grace and sensitivity to the adaptation of Akimi Yoshida’s slice-of-life manga, Our Little Sister (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Sachi Koda is the responsible one. She pays the bills as an RN and serves as a maternal stand-in for her two (then three) sisters. Yoshino is a binge-drinker, but somehow she slacks by working in various financial services jobs. Chika Koda is the kooky one, but at least she and her retired mountain-climber boyfriend have steady jobs at a sporting goods store. Not so surprisingly, Suzu Asano really doesn’t have her thing yet. For the last several years, she has tended to their ailing father. When the sisters attend his funeral (including Sachi, a late game-time arrival), they are quickly charmed by the shy young girl. Deducing her problematic relationship with her home-wrecking mother, they invite her to stay with them in Kamakura.

You could say very little happens from here on out, except that the four sisters proceed to live their lives. The three Koda sisters have absolutely no trouble accepting Asano as one of their own, but she will finally have to start asserting her place in the world. Sachi Koda is supposed to be the smart one, but she is conducting an affair with a married doctor due to transfer to America for advanced specialty training. Presumably, she will have to make a choice between him and an offer to head-up the new geriatric-hospice ward. It would be a big promotion, but an awfully depressing one. Yet, she seems to have the compassionate skillset for that kind of work.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Yoshino Koda might kind-of sort-of be getting it together as the assistant to a bankruptcy advisor. Unfortunately, Sachiko Ninomiya, the beloved proprietress of the Kodas’ favorite diner, might need his services when she is diagnosed with aggressively terminal cancer. Of course, Chika Koda continues to drift along. Occasionally, the Kodas’ even more estranged mother turns up, but Sachi does her best to vibe her away. He just wants to provide a stable environment for Asano, but it would probably help if she worked on a few of her own issues.

OLS is definitely a quiet film that might even be uncharitably described as meandering, but what exactly would you like to see befall these charming sisters? A zombie apocalypse, perhaps? The pleasures of Kore-eda’s film comes in meeting these characters—and they are considerable. As Asano, Suzu Hirose is deeply endearing, but her performance in grounded in exquisite sadness. She is terrific, but the luminous Haruka Ayase might even shine brighter as profoundly complicated and humane Sachi. Masami Nagasawa and Kaho add plenty of zest and attitude as the younger Koda sisters, while Jun Fubuki and Lily Franky quietly lower the emotional boom as Ninomiya and her loyal partner.

Our Little Sister is just a lovely film, in every way. Cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto captures the beauty of Kamakura’s changing seasons, nicely complimenting Kore-eda’s graceful touch. This is not the sort of film that will ever hit viewers over the head, but there are moments of understated significance that will warmly resonate with receptive audiences. It is a subtly terrific film from a master filmmaker. Very highly recommended, Our Little Sister opens this Friday (7/8) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Lincoln Plaza uptown.