Family ties, in Hirokazu Koreeda’s films, have the potential of revealing casually dispensed class prejudice, self-delusion and pigheadedness, but they might also, under auspicious circumstances, stimulate altruistic gestures. The focus on family dynamics has the advantage of making the setting at once self-contained and, well, familiar, easing the access into the story and placing the weight on small details and differences between characters. Koreeda is furthermore a cinematic artist of space and light, whose mise-en-scène (a lot more carefully thought out than the stand-and-deliver Hollywood style of framing actors) is essential to his then-and-there feel of the story’s unfolding.
His previous work, Like Father, Like Son (2013), pulls off a brilliant demonstration of various preconceptions about parenting and the adults’ inherent power over their the lives of their offsprings by examining two families with school-aged children who discover they have swapped their babies at birth. His latest, Our Little Sister, adapted from the manga Umimachi Diary with preoccupation for moral complexity, proves thematically consistent with Koreeda’s filmography. A trio of adult sisters (the eldest, Sachi, played by Haruka Ayase) go to their father’s funeral, where they meet their absolutely charming teenage half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose). They invite her to live with them, initially dismissing the tensions created within the family by the fact that their father left their mother to found the newer family.
After the ticking clock is well in place, the film turns into a loose display of congenial family lunches and partly affectionate, partly uncalled for sisterly conversations. With the newly adopted sister’s benevolent (though self-effacing) presence, each one of them is invited to reconsider her upbringing and the effect it had on shaping her personality. A highly analytical film which is nevertheless full of sensuous charm, Our Little Sister seems to accomplish Sachi’s purported need, that of rediscovering the joys of childhood. The film is limited in that its female protagonists represent character types without transcending them: underneath the older sisters’ allure of independence lie the homely pushover, the inconsiderate party girl, the tomboyish hedonist, each of them ostensibly in need of a cure. This lends an off-putting moralizing air to a film which has for the most part rejoiced in watching life happen.