There are some things we learn from our parents directly, like how to ride a bike or how to cook a certain dish. Then there are the things you learn but are ignorant of such education: the possibly unscientific genealogy of passing down traits of character, or even a willingness to perform an action in a particular way. Sachi, the eldest sister of three, the other two being the heavy-drinker but sweet Yuccan and the pleasantly odd Chika, despises her father for leaving them and their mother for another woman so many years ago. Yet, she currently is dating a man whose wife is suffering from clinical depression. When she is reminded by one of her sisters that her actions reflect that of their father's, she becomes frightful, albeit confused. She has not even seen her father in fifteen years. Sometimes almost miraculously, we always seem to remain close to our family, no matter how far away in time and space we try to run. Most of the time it is inexplicable.
Hirokazu Kore-eda's Our Little Sister is layered with the genealogy of a broken family, in which the narrative reveals itself through the struggles between generations in which the generations, themselves, are not at all straightforward. Like driftwood from a destroyed ship, this family has been shattered and been drifting apart ever since, yet they all still come from the same boat. The only point of togetherness is situated in the three sisters, whose living arrangement resides in their old house that use to be their grandparents, described often as a 'girl's dormitory.' Pictures of these grandparents hang on the wall: Can they see that these sisters are left to their own devices without any parental guidance? These portraits are manifestations of memories and the house is a structure full of familial memories, where the sisters make food their mother or father taught them so long ago. They even continue to make plum wine their grandparents began long ago, going so far as keeping the first batch of wine made to use for special occasions. Kore-eda makes use of the setting, with the creaky wood and profuse vegetation growing all around, to convey ancestral resonance as the sisters try to continue with their lives, maybe get married, and maybe finally move out.
When news arrives that their father has died, they go to the funeral in the town of which he lived. There, they meet their younger sister, well, half-sister. In fact, she is the younger sister from the woman their father left them for. She is shy, reserved, but mature in conversation. Her name is Suza, and her mother at the time of father's death is not the same mother she was born from. Like her older sisters, she has experienced severance. Sachi, who has assumed the role of a surrogate mother to her sisters, ambitiously asks Suza to come back and live with them, immediately treating her like a little sister, ignoring the fact that they have different mothers. Thus, the three sisters strive to convince Suza that she belongs with them, that a past of infidelities wrought upon by adults cannot take away a sisterhood of understanding.
Kore-eda treats his female stars with a graceful levity, allowing the sisters to maintain an independent sense of determining optimism among the cynical context of family breakdowns as well as their more contemporary problems with their love lives. Most of the film has all four sisters with the frame of the camera, and it is through calculated blocking of the actresses that each of their distinct personalities constantly reverberate between one another. All of them perform well and perform even better together. Many of the scenes hide much of their functionality in regards to plot with dialogue that is beautifully banal, as if there is no notion of a film with a story being made. But, what makes each of these scenes, and each of these shots with all the sisters present, so intriguing, is just watching each of them react to the other organically.
Kore-eda's cinematographer, Mikiya Takimoto, plays with foreground and background elements often as well as depth of field. He takes advantage of many moments where people populate the scene, and important movements, gestures, or reactions happen either in the background, extreme foreground, or even out of focus. In one instance, when the older sisters' estranged mother arrives at the house she ran away from fourteen years ago, she has a fight with Sachi over selling the house, the latter furious to the idea. Yet, the scenes intensity is depicted more with the people watching such an argument, even though they are out of focus. It all makes sense; the conflict between Sachi and her mother might seem like a grudge just between them, but familial conflicts are never contained, they send shock waves so powerful yet so subtle. The other members internalize their dismay, maybe holding grudges for later use.
If those moments express the film's most intense conflicts, even with subtlety, then the rest of the film hovers between the mundane and the revelatory. The women of this film see each other as priorities, tightening their bond even though their tarnished past and social norms tell them otherwise. They form a sisterhood of love, care, and respect. With every moment of light beauty, happiness, and comedy comes a moment of slow-burning tragedy. Feelings conjure of worthlessness, childhoods removed, and normalcy vanished. There are never really any moments of climatic expression, save for maybe one. But maybe that is because how we would traditionally identify dramatic change is something too obvious, far more externalized than reality. The tragedies and triumphs of these four women is shown between the looks and smiles and concerned eyes they give to each other, not in a performative exhibition for an unseen audience. And that is fine by me. With such naturalism, a comforting placidity commands the flow of the film, opening itself up for a warming empathy.
Lastly, it must be said that this film is filled with sympathetic characters. One could easily take this as an example of flatness, a disregard for drama by not giving us characters to root against. Yet, maybe we shouldn't think of looking upon other humans as a dichotomy of who to like and who to despise. Our Little Sister is a decent film in the best ways possible. It's decency is its profundity.