I want to bundle this movie up and hug it. Tightly. For a long time.
That was my first thought after seeing Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister (also known as Umimachi Diary or “Diary Of A Seaside Town”) due to its joy, charm and humanity. I simply wanted to extend my experience with it and let all of its wonder continue to wash over me.
Don’t take that as indication that the film is slight or sickly sweet though. It’s neither. The emotions, reactions and behaviours are all very real and relatable (regardless of your cultural background) and the story of 3 sisters discovering they have a 14 year-old half-sister gets to core aspects of family – what we share, how we relate to each other and how we make assumptions about our family members. The film drifts in and out of gentle melodrama at times with musical cues denoting the prevalent emotion of the scene, but none of these moments felt forced or constructed purposely to tell the viewer what to feel. Kore-eda’s style is always there to support the story and characters. And what wonderful characters…
The three sisters (ranging from early 20s to early 30s) all live together in the old family home and have different personalities and approaches to life. Though they all fit certain templates – eldest is the maternal responsible one, middle child has bad taste in men and drinks to excess, youngest is a bit goofy – they each have fully-fleshed out characteristics that make them endearing, interesting and a bit frustrating. Kind of like everyone’s own family…Though their Dad is on his third wife by the time they attend (with little emotion) his funeral, their half-sister Suzu was actually the daughter of his second wife (who had passed away previously). This clues the older siblings into realizing that she won’t get any attention or love at all in her remaining non-blood family. Even though they have just met her, Sachi impulsively invites Suzu to live with them and the household brightens considerably with the teenager’s arrival. They share the house with their Great Aunt and the mid-section of the film is chock full of wonderful family dynamics scenes – ranging from cute to passive aggressive. Behind all of this is the spectre of the mother (Dad’s first wife) of the three adult sisters, how she fits into their lives and what might transpire when a larger family gathering will take place.
I will readily admit that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Kore-eda fanboy, so my biases are clear. I adore pretty much everything I’ve seen by him because he builds characters with whom you not only want to spend time, but also desire to discover more fully and who stay with you long afterwards. In the case of Our Little Sister, the screenplay was actually adapted from a manga by the original author Akimi Yoshida so I can’t give full credit to Kore-eda. But his ability to extract wonderfully natural performances from his actors continues here and makes the film feel “lived in”. Especially when it clearly revels in the small details of family life and traditions as the story winds its way through all the seasons of a full year. You can almost taste the plum wine they make from the fruits of their property’s trees and its oh-so-sweet. Not saccharine, but sweet.