Our Little Sister

2015

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Starring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose

Words – Natalie Mills

Based on manga series Seaside Town Diary, Our Little Sister follows the lives of three twenty-something sisters. Abandoned by their separated parents, they live together in the beautiful, traditional old house that belonged to their grandmother. When their father (who they’ve not seen for 15 years) dies, they attend his funeral together, where they meet their half-sister, Suzu.

After realising Suzu has been caring for their father and not Suzu’s stepmother, the eldest sister Sachi invites Suzu to live with them. What follows is an uplifting story about family relationships, guilt and responsibility, and the power of eating delicious food to make everything OK again.

This is a warm bubble bath of a film. Despite deaths and family dramas, Our Little Sister maintains a feeling of hope and serenity. The family history is messy, the grief even more so, but there is a constant safety net of support and sisterly love.

The sisters themselves are well-defined, well-realised characters, beautifully acted. Sachi, the eldest and a nurse, is serious and old before her time, but she is hiding something that opposes her sensibility. Office worker Yoshino is funny and flirty, lounging around demanding, “Just give me a beer”. Chika is a chilled-out hippy oddball, whose ambiguous relationship with her colleague at the sports store keeps her two older sisters guessing.

As Suzu moves in, her three sisters fall in love with her. They admire her as she sleeps, marvel at her long eyelashes and whisper, “Her ears are like yours” as if she’s a baby. It’s hard not to – she’s just a good kid who deserves a break. You brace yourself for Our Little Sister to be about a wild teen that messes up everyone’s lives, but Suzu is a ray of sunshine to everyone she meets. She also has a cute coming-of-age romance with a boy in her football team, peaking with, “You look pretty good in that summer kimono” and a bike ride through cherry blossom.

Dysfunctional family relationships are at the heart of this film. It’s not that the parents in the film are bad, but there’s a lot of emotional baggage these four sisters could do without.
Their Great Aunt is a force to be reckoned with; she tries to discourage them from taking in Suzu, “The daughter of the woman who destroyed your family”, at all. Sachi and Yoshino try to hide their bickering in front of their new little sister – Yoshino mocks Sachi’s “old lady” clothes (despite borrowing her blouse), before screaming at her to save her from a huge cricket in the shower. The strained, fragile relationship between Sachi and their mother is tested to breaking point as she threatens to sell their home. “The girls will all get married”, their mother argues.

From their absent mother’s decade-spanning bitterness and victimhood about their father’s affair, to Suzu’s guilt that “Someone’s always hurting just because I exist”, it’s a film about adults stealing childhoods. It’s empowering to see the sisters thrive in spite of (or because of) their parents not having been around. You get to enjoy four more-or-less single young women, living their best lives in whatever way they choose.

The film ends on a message of forgiveness and moving forward. From Sachi and Suzu cathartically shouting “MUM IS AN IDIOT!” and “DAD IS AN IDIOT!” to the horizon, they accept the situation is nobody’s fault. One sister sacrifices her own happiness to avoid following her father’s example, having lived through its fallout. Or maybe she just knows she deserves better.

As well as being a beautifully shot and wholesome film, the food is another reason to watch Our Little Sister. Every meal is savoured and appreciated, and you see a lot of them.
A seaside cafe, also run by siblings, is the regular hangout for the girls. As Suzu tucks into their whitebait, she lies about having never tried it before, to avoid discussing a memory about their dad. The sisters are reminded of their mother as they eat the only meal she taught them how to cook. Yoshino observes that Sachi “bought lots of apples when she got dumped before”. The sisters giggle and imitate the “pss pss” noises of puncturing fruit with their initials as they make plum wine, and the “shhha shhha” sound of fishing for carp. Food is a big deal.

Our Little Sister isn’t action packed and there’s no big twist, it’s a sincere, chicken-soup-for-the-soul film, and a cosy escape from the world; just make sure you have plenty of comfort snacks ready.