'Our Little Sister' ('Umimachi Diary'): Cannes Review

Generous spirited, pristinely shot and, quite frankly, somewhat dull

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda ('Like Father, Like Son') competes in Cannes with this breezy tale of four sisters establishing domestic harmony in a seaside town.

One of writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s marvelous early films, After Life (1998), unfolds a vision of limbo where the recently deceased collaborate with angelic filmmakers to recreate treasured moments — a cherry blossom shower, a plane ride through clouds, and so on — from their lives before they pass on into oblivion. His latest film, Cannes competitor Our Little Sister, sometimes seems to consist of solely of happy, weightless moments like those. Nearly all the conflict is in the film’s past tense as it observes three grown sisters (played by Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa and Kaho) welcome their teenage half-sibling (Suzu Hirose) into the family fold after the death of their common father. The result is an episodic, generous-spirited, pristinely shot and, quite frankly, somewhat dull effort which will probably play well in Japan where the leads are big stars and the graphic novel it’s based on is well-known. However, it’s unlikely to have the same appeal to audiences offshore except for hardcore Kore-eda fans and committed Japanophiles.

In the photogenic seaside city of Kamakura near Tokyo, the three Koda sisters, all roughly in their 20s, live relatively harmoniously together, apart from the odd spat over clothes borrowed without permission. Responsible eldest Sachi (Ayase, from Ichi), a nurse at the local hospital, is having a relationship with a married pediatrician (Shin'ichi Tsutsumi). Ever since the girls’ mother (Shinobu Ohtake) moved away and their grandmother died, Sachi has been the de facto matriarch of the family for her younger sisters, party-girl bank clerk Yoshino (Nagasawa, on her second Kore-eda outing after I Wish) and the quirkily dressed but less well-defined Chika (Kaho).

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When their father, who skedaddled when Chika was a toddler, dies in a distant province, the three sisters attend the funeral and meet their half-sibling, 15-year-old Suzu (Hirose), for the first time. Since Suzu’s own mother, whom the father went off to be with years ago, is now dead and Suzu doesn’t get on with her stepmother, she gladly accepts when Sachi invites her to come and live with them all in their capacious homestead.

Viewers primed to expect from more conventional movies that spats or at least complications would arise from this inciting incident will be nonplussed by Suzu’s seamless assimilation into the Koda family. Before long, she’s making friends at school and finding her niche on the local teen soccer team. The passage of time is marked by a procession of seasonal vignettes, like pages from a medieval book of hours brought to life. Suzu rides pillion on a friends bicycle through a frothy tunnel of cherry blossom trees to mark the coming of spring, and soon it’s time to prick kanji characters in the skin of greengages as the sisters prepare their annual batch of plum wine. (A great deal of the running time is spent watching characters preparing food, eating meals and discussing the virtues of, say whitebait toast, or the local cafe’s preparation of marinated horse mackerel, making this a film one shouldn’t see on an empty stomach.) As the season turns, it’s time for the women to dress in their best summer kimonos to enjoy an entirely nonmetaphorical fireworks display.

As if grudgingly aware that he must provide at least a modicum of drama, Kore-eda warms up the emotional temperature in the last few reels when the original trio’s mother shows up to make vague threats about selling the house, and the older girls find a way to forgive the father they barely knew but Suzu loved deeply. The sometimes self-righteous Sachi finally has an epiphany when she realizes her own extramarital goings-on make her no better a person than Suzu’s mother, who supposedly stole her father away. It’s not really a spoiler to report that by the end, like Chekhov’s three sisters but without any of the Slavic melancholy or frustration, the women are exactly in the same place as where they started, if anything just a little happier. And like the children in Kore-eda’s much more tragic but punchier effort Nobody Knows, they find the inner resources to survive without parents, forming a somewhat unconventional family unit.

Our Little Sister certainly marks a change from the heavy melodramatics of the swapped-at-birth storyline of the director’s last, Like Father, Like Son, but it feels ineffably slight even if it’s a consistent pleasure to spend time in the company of these three likeable women. The actors have a breezy, unforced and entirely credible sisterly chemistry together, and working once again with Like Father’s DoP Takimoto Mikiya, Kore-eda often groups them together in midrange shots, all the better to showcase their private economy of exchanged smiles and amused raised eyebrows. But pleasant though that is, it’s not quite enough to sustain interest in a film that could easily be half an hour shorter than it is. The thing that was so inspired about the central conceit of After Life was that everyone has experienced just one moment of perfect happiness in her life. This film proves that if nearly every moment is pretty happy, then no one moment feels particularly special.

Production companies: An Akimi Yoshida, Shogakukan, Fuji Television Network Inc., Shogakukan Inc., Toho Co., Ltd., Gaga Corp. production
Cast: Ayase Haruka, Nagasawa Masami, Kaho, Hirose Suzu, Shin'ichi Tsutsumi
Director/editor: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Screenwriter:Kore-eda Hirokazu, based on a graphic novel by Yoshida Akimi
Producers: Matsuzaki Kaoru, Taguchi Hijiri
Executive producers: Ogawa Yasushi, Omura Makoto, Ueda Taichi, Odake Satomi
Director of photography: Takimoto Mikiya
Production designer: Mitsumatsu Keiko
Composer: Kanno Yoko
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 126 minutes