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Monday, July 11, 2016

Hirokazu Kore-eda | 海街diary (Our Little Sister)


family matters
Douglas Messerli

Hirokazu Kore-eda (screenplay, based on Akimi Yoshida’s Umimachi Diary) and director 海街diary

(Our Little Sister) / 2015, USA 2016

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, based on the Japanese manga series, Umimachi Diary, is a slow-moving, yet highly touching film about a family of three sisters, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho) who live together in a large dilapidated house in Kamakura, south-west of Tokyo. Since their father ran off with another woman in their early  childhoods, and their mother, unable to live with the shame, also left, the girls have pretty much had to survive on their own, led by the eldest of them Sachi, who as a colleague observes, lost her childhood in the process. 
       Still acting much as the mother to the group, Sachi works as a nurse; Yoshino works in a bank and Chika in a sports goods store. Like any family unit, they often argue over important and unimportant matters, but generally, despite their personality differences, they get on quite wonderfully.
       As the film begins, they hear that their father, who had moved far away with yet a third woman, has died, and when they attend the funeral they discover that their father has had yet another daughter, Suzu (Suzu Hirose), now 14 years of age. At the funeral it becomes apparent that the stepmother is a selfish woman, and that Suzu has been the true nurse to her father during his long illness. For Sachi it seems, perhaps, that their half-sister may not even be wanted by the step-mother, who has a younger son from her previous relationship. In what almost seems like a whimsical decision, Sachi and her two sisters invite the young girl to come live with them.
      So begins a long series of rather episodic events that present the process of assimilation of the new family member into the life they have created for themselves. Trials and tribulations, large and small, occur, the most serious being the temporary return of their absent mother who briefly and selfishly ponders selling the house in which they live. Sachi, dating a married pediatrician, is asked to consider going away with him to the US, which would only repeat what the “other woman” had done to her family. Sachi, who hates her father for his actions, at moments is at odds with Suzu, who loved and cared for the same man. But generally the family embraces their new “little sister” and is strengthened by the love they grow to feel for her.
      It helps, of course, that this young girl has an infectious smile, is a good soccer player, and seems generally well-adjusted, allowing her to fit into family and school life equally. But, in a sense, that’s beside the point. For Kore-eda’s film is not about “events” as much as it is about a sort of Chekov-like spirit, an acceptance of what life offers and a determination of the survivors to make the best of it they can. This theme is repeated again and again throughout the film as Sachi and her mother make up over a jar of plum wine, as Yoshino helps a restaurateur friend to write a will before she dies, and Sachi accepts a job in the intensive care unit of the hospital, where it becomes her job to help people to die.
Through Suzu, Chika even gets the opportunity to get to know something about the father she can hardly remember. If their father has been worthless, they conclude, at least he did one thing that was meaningful, bringing a little sister into their lives.
     Like the great Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, this director has long focused his films on family life, subtly exploring how outsiders alter or help to break-down that important unit. For many looser-knit Americans, the seeming uneventfulness of Kore-eda’s film may suggest that, even if emotionally rich, the film is somewhat meaningless. 
     But that would be to misunderstand what we are actually being shown in this work. Actually, tensions and small rifts temporarily set them each adrift; they simply do not advertise those hurts the way strangers or outsiders would. Family members may even fight, but as a unit they must equally forgive and forget. Time and again these sisters point out the traits of one another, comparing and linking them to the new sister. Knowing that family is all they truly have, that it is a way of embracing what they do not quite know, and a way to include that world outside. Little acts—cooking, gardening, dressing, eating, and even praying—become major events in such a closed world, yet it is these seeming non-events that help to make a family cohere and survive. And Kore-eda rightfully celebrates them as something more than insignificant moments. This is a film that takes a patient gaze—in its ebb and flow, the movie might have come to an end at several moments before it finally does—and a viewer that can transcend his or her own cultural perspectives.

Los Angeles, July 11, 2016


Through Suzu, Chika even gets the opportunity to get to know something about the father she can hardly remember. If their father has been worthless, they conclude, at least he did one thing that was meaningful, bringing a little sister into their lives.

     Like the great Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, this director has long focused his films on family life, subtly exploring how outsiders alter or help to break-down that important unit. For many looser-knit Americans, the seeming uneventfulness of Kore-eda’s film may suggest that,  even if emotionally rich, the film is somewhat meaningless.
     But that would be to misunderstand what we are actually being shown in this work. Actually, tensions and small rifts temporarily set them each adrift; they simply do not advertise those hurts the way strangers or outsiders would. Family members may even fight, but as a unit they must equally forgive and forget. Time and again these sisters point out the traits of one another, comparing and linking them to the new sister. Knowing that family is all they truly have, it is a way of embracing what they do not quite know, and a way to include that world outside. Little acts, cooking, gardening, dressing, and eating become major events in such a closed world, yet it is these seeming non-events that help to make a family cohere and survive.

Los Angeles, July 11, 2016

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