Because there’’s one thing stronger than magic: sisterhood

A sister is a gift to the heart, a friend to the spirit, a golden thread to the meaning of life.
Isadora James

Title
 Our Little Sister (2015)  
Genre
Family
Written by
 Hirokazu Koreeda (screenplay), Yoshida Akimi (graphic novel)
Directed by
Country of Origin
 Japan 
Running time
126 minutes 

oh! … brief

Three sisters, Sachi Kouda, Yoshino Kouda, and Chika Kouda live together in the house their grandparents own in Kamakura. Their parents separated and the father and mother both eventually abandoned their three girls. The girls have relied and depended on each other and are very close with each other. When their father dies, they discover that he has a child, Suzu Asano, from a second marriage. At their father’s funeral, the girls offer Suzu, their half-sister, the chance to join them and live with them in Kamakura. She does.

oh! … talks film

This film is based on the manga series, Umimachi Diary, (Seaside Town Diary). It’s not a typical film with a specific genre, plot or theme. Instead, it’s a film made up of small short stories, kind of like vignettes, that feature the trials and tribulations of the four sisters. It’s not a film that will appeal to everyone because there is no over-the-top melodrama, but it’s an easy film to watch. And if you’re looking for a break from all the angst of kdrama or tdrama, then this might just be it!

Hirokazu Kore-eda penned a rare film that captured the ups and downs of family life, or rather the family life of three sisters and their half-sister. He was astute at creating a screenplay that doesn’t delve into the psyche of the girls, instead focused on the lives of four women just living everyday life – there is nothing sensational about how they live and there are no romantic entanglements that might be scandalous. It’s a simple tale of four women filled with optimism and enjoys their lives – looking for romance, chowing down on good food, mourning their losses and moving through their daily routines. But, while it is an uplifting film, it is also tinged with melancholy.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s narrative explores the women’s heartaches and simple pleasures through subtle gestures, particularly the estrangement of the three older women from their mother, extended family members and some friends. For example, the memories evoked through ‘whitebait fish toast’ or their favoured restaurant which is going out of business. It’s an insightful storytelling of characters that could mirror many modern-day individuals who strive through good and bad situations with little to no complaint. This is exactly what makes this film modestly compelling and leaves the audience with emotions that can be examined and self-explored.

The four sisters are intentionally depicted with distinctive personalities – Sachi the responsible mothering personality, Yoshino the hardworking, hard-playing ‘wild’ child, Chika the eccentric and Suzu the tomboy. It’s truly great to see the writing of these four characters come to life on the screen.

I admired how Hirokazu Kore-eda used ‘love’ to weave together the passage of time with these women and their journey from being abandoned by negligent parents to shouldering responsibility for their own individual and collective lives., to acting as surrogate parents to their new half-sister. But it is more than just this, it’s about messing up and working through the pain of love. From Sachi’s affair, tangled with her anger toward her father’s infidelity to Yoshino’s choosing of loser-type partners with all the complications that are associated with those entanglements and Chika’s very low-key almost non-existent relationship with a co-worker. Or even the dawning realization that Suzu’s physical presence is a constant reminder of just how dysfunctional their individual and collective lives have been.

But Hirokazu Kore-eda didn’t stop there, he used perceptions of life and death, family ties and human fallacy to portray just some of the life’s turmoil. It was extremely discerning and perceptive. Overall, Hirokazu Kore-eda created a story about grace in the face of strife, kindness, deliverance and displayed the sadness of stolen childhoods. He focused his attention almost entirely on the women in this production – the men all played marginal roles and don’t have much screen time, even the deceased father, who is entirely invisible, except in memory.

Can you tell I loved this film?

If I can aptly describe this film, I’d say it is a moving production that allows the audience to find points of self-acceptance and acclaim. The phrase ‘watercolour cinema’ aptly describes for me, the layout of this piece of work. The film paints the archetypal artistry of a Japanese family living a rural life and was visually attentive.

As director, Hirokazu Kore-eda wove a tapestry that was delicately understated. Combining the elements of an honest story with aesthetic visuals and an evocative musical score, he underscored his filmmaking style.

Cinematographer, Mikiya Takimoto, captured the allure of the women as they moved and spoke in each vignette. He paid attention to detail, holding captive the audience with the beauty of the changing seasons as a backdrop to the unfolding narrative. This film was beautifully shot with a polished palette in various hues of blue, grey and olive. There was no need for the contrived glossings you find in many Hollywood productions. He used simple framing, staging each scene with long fixed shots or slow horizontal panning of his cameras. These techniques created wonderful compositions bewitching the audience and delivering breathtaking illustration of the changing landscape, the architecture of Kamakura and the organic flora.

But, Mikiya Takimoto didn’t stop there, in one scene ( the one you will hear about most for this production), he used an overhead vertical camera to accentuate the movement of bicycles through a tunnel of cherry blossoms – it was brilliant mastery!

The cinematography for this production championed the simple staging of the screenplay, allowing for an unspoken intensity in the interactions of the characters. Every single scene, from start to finish, brings attention to and creates space for convincing movement and articulation, both grand and small and honours the impressive acting of the cast members.

The screenplay, cinematography, and performances were further by the accompanying musical score. At times, the emotions of the characters were boiling beneath the surface but remained unspoken. Those intense moments were emphasized by the accompanying music, composed by anime legend, Yoko Kanno. Using honeyed melodies and classical string arrangement and piano-heavy influence, Yoko Kanno’s score helped awaken the audience and conjured up nostalgia. The score was as beautiful as the cinematography and as simple as the narrative, but, as complex as the character’s personalities. Brilliant! Just brilliant!

Keiko Mitsumatsu, this film’s production designer worked in collaboration with Ayako Matsuo (set director) and Mami Kahamoto (art director) to design and create the home the sisters resided in, with interiors reflective of their personalities and lifestyle. Also, the interiors of their local restaurant and other city buildings. It was all very well accomplished and authentic. Sachiko, the film’s costume designer used common sense and approached the ensembles of each character with simplicity and straightforward design, but used the personalities of each character in clothing and accessory choices. Special mention must be made about the stunning traditional robes used in the local ceremony and celebration as the summer ends.

Hirokazu Kore-eda must be applauded for his unfussy approach reminiscent of wabi-sabi and Mono no, elements of the Japanese aesthetic. But the success of this production cannot overlook the amazing performances of the main characters, and their supporting cast.

Toshi Tabata (casting director), cast some solid actors and actress in minor but important roles. Kirin Kiki as great-aunt Fumiyo, Lily Franky as restaurant owner Sen-Ichi, Jun Fubuki as the sisters’ estranged mother, Shinichi Tsutsumi as a restaurant patron who knew the sisters’ father, and Ryo Kase as Yoshino’s work colleague

Karuka Ayase played Sachi Koda, the eldest among the sisters and a hospital nurse having an affair with a married doctor. Karuka Ayase interpretation of her character showed maturity given that her portfolio is filled with wacky comedies and drama series. From a physical standpoint, Karuka Ayase’s character stands alert and holds herself elegantly which adds to her physical beauty, but demands attention. At all times throughout the production, you can sense the character’s earnest approach to life and that she takes her role as ‘den-mother’ seriously, perhaps a little too seriously. Karuka Ayase paints the perfect image of a well-disciplined woman who is both strong and sensitive. At times, one can see both the parallels and mirroring between the characters Sachi Koda and Suzu Asano and it leaves a poignant and affecting impression. Of course, Karuka Ayase delivered her lines impeccably, emotes well, but, it’s her characters conventional appeal that won the audience over more than anything else. At least, that’s what I believe.

Yoshino Koda, the middle child, somewhat rebellious and quirky, was played by Masami Nagasawa. Of all the characters, Yoshino is the one I most identified with. Masami Nagasawa’s performance was by far (for me at least) the most stirring and memorable. I watched her performance and thought of my late teens and young adult years and saw glimpses of my life mirrored in Yoshino. Masami Nagasawa’s interpretation of her character was as real and as complex as if she was Yoshino and not herself. I connected with her depiction of a fun-loving but often heartbroken woman. She shone and built her character so vividly, but, in an understated manner. Masami Nagasawa used her face and body language astutely. But, the unspoken emotions and sentiments were most compelling and impressed me most. Of all the characters, Yoshino is perhaps the one that matures the most over the span of the production, she grows from the wild child (having fun, sleeping around, drinking too much) to maturing and becoming responsible and taking the decision to help out a close and important family friend.

Oddball, Chika Koda, works in a shoe-store and is a whimsical escapist was played by Kaho. Untainted by the parental turmoil experienced by her siblings she is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Filled with energy, Kaho, delivered a character that spends a lot of time crawling around on the floor or spending time with her work colleague and boyfriend who dons the craziest hairdo for a Japanese guy I have ever seen. But, she’s not some slacker who has no intelligence. This character has incredible insight and wit and takes her role as ‘older sister’ very seriously. Kaho’s depiction was spot on for such a wacky character. I was entertained by her delivery of her, sometimes, weird lines, with a straight face. Nothing phased this character, not ever! Kaho was fun to watch and added some comic relief to tense scenes!

The newcomer to the ‘family’, Suzu Asano, the coming-of-age youngster was played by Suzu Hirose. And wow, did she deliver in this performance! As a newcomer to the big screen, Suzu Hirose’s performance was strong, mature, and pensive. Our first introduction to the character is to witness her melancholic face and attempt at stoicism. But when you see her first smile, its enchanting. Suzu Hirose’s best skill in this film, in my opinion, of course, was her moving depiction of the guilt her character felt and her transition outsider to sister. Suzu Hirose’s eyes stood out for me. She used them well to paint her internal pain and they were by far her most powerful achievement for this film. Her eyes once etched with the loneliness and sadness her character felt, become beacons of hope and simple pleasure. Suzu Hirose’s delivery of her personal and intimate dialogue with her new sisters was authentic and raw. She never missed a beat and as a child-actor (being only 15 when this production started filming) she was arresting in her performance!

All in all, the four female leads had dynamic chemistry between them. There is no possible way that one can watch this film and walk away unbelieving in the sisterhood. They mimicked the fighting, laughter, tears and coming together that so many sisters around the world share daily. This was by far one of the strengths of this production, the naturalness of the relationships forged.

oh! … sidekicks

I’ve already mentioned a few names of the actors and actresses that played supporting roles. However, I want to mention the following individual who delivered a performance worthy of mentioning.

Takafumi Ikeda played Sanzo Hamada, Chika’s work colleague and boyfriend. Not only did this character sport a full-blown afro, but he also was the most intriguing of the characters. Why yuo ask? Well, it’s hard to put into words, so go watch his performance! I got the sense that his performance was not so much a performance but rather a delivery of his true-life persona. I don’t know and as this is his first performance of two in total it is hard to tell. I will have to wait and see if he accepts other roles. For now, let’s just say, his quirky delivery of his quirky character is going to be memorable for a long time to come!

oh! … that’s a wrap

Our Little Sister is a fantastic production and I highly recommend it!

Stunning imagery, remarkable performances, a simple but absorbing story filmed in a wonderful location with the exploration of love, death, parental relationships, sisterhood, human fallacy and the values behind tradition and family, and delivered in a minimalistic production, has far more impact and effect than I believe was expected.

You will either love this film or not. It may not appeal to everyone, but it appealed to me.

oh! … tidbits

Our Little Sister wasselected to compete for the Palme d’Orat the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

Suzu Hirose won Rookie of the Year award at the 39th Japan Academy Award ceremony.

The film also won Audience Award at San Sebastián International Film Festival

Our Little Sister was filmed in Kamakura, the final resting place of Yasujirō Ozu (12 December 1903 – 12 December 1963), one of the world’s most influential film directors. In the 2012, Ozu’s Tokyo Story was voted the greatest film of all time by world directors.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

 

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