If not the sole concern of director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s quarter century career, family life has nonetheless provided him with consistently rewarding subject matter. Through “Nobody Knows” (2004), “Still Walking” (2008), “I Wish” (2011), and “Like Father, Like Son” (2013), he has probed the tight bonds, painful absences, and changing definitions of family in contemporary Japanese society. With a screenplay adapted from Akimi Yoshida’s popular manga, “Umimachi Diary,” Kore-eda returns to the theme with the gently paced and open-hearted “Our Little Sister.”
Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho) are three sisters in their twenties who have shared their home in the coastal town of Kamakura since their father left for another woman and their mother all but deserted them fifteen years earlier. Traveling to the funeral of their estranged father, they meet their half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose), a sweet, if serious minded, thirteen year old who had already lost her mother and has now nursed their father through his final illness. Unimpressed by her incapable stepmother, they impulsively invite her to live with them.
The sisters are deftly drawn and beautifully played, and for the course of a year we follow them through work, school and home life. The eldest, Sachi, the mature mother figure, is a nurse involved with a married doctor. Yoshiko, a modern woman with a passion for beer, has a job in a bank. The cheerful Chika works with her boyfriend in a sporting goods store. Suzu sets about reclaiming her adolescence by settling in at school, reinvigorating the youth soccer team, and beginning a friendship that might become something more.
As the seasons change, cherry blossoms give way to autumnal leaves, luminously shot by cinematographer Mikita Takimoto. As in “Still Walking” (2008), food and drink serve as conduits for ritual and memory. The sisters poke their initials into ripe plums that they ferment into wine, and visit the local cafe for whitebait toast, served by a loving owner who has watched over them from childhood.
The only serious threat to these calm rhythms comes in the form of the older sisters’ mother, who’s horrified at the intrusion of the daughter of the woman who destroyed her family. This brings to the surface Sachi’s guilt at parallels in her own love live. As she ponders an offer of promotion to a new terminal care ward, those who have already passed on – her “kind but useless” father, Suzu’s husband-stealing mother, the older sisters’ grandmother – linger just out of sight.
While the tension barely rises above a whisper, for a little over two hours we are drawn ever more firmly into the lives of these young women. “Our Little Sister” is a tender film, sweet as plum wine, that reverberates in the heart as the final credits roll.
(128 minutes, not rated, in Japanese with English subtitles) Opens Friday, August 12, at Cinema 21