Barring one of the more dramatic career slumps in recent movie-land history, it is safe to assume that when people look back over the work of the great Hirokazu Koreeda, Our Little Sister will be seen as a minor offering.Taking Ukimi Yoshida's Umimachi Diary comics as its source material, Koreeda's film slips into a current of tepid sentimentality early on and, despite some fine distilling, never totally recovers from the process. This is not to say that the film is a bad piece of work, indeed as one critic put it, Koreeda running at 75% is probably still better than most things out there.
Continuing with the themes of his more recent efforts- those of misplaced or newfound relatives, and nature vs. nurture in Japanese society- we meet three sisters living in Kamakura, a small city on the pacific coast of Japan. It becomes apparent that their father left them- and their mother- at a young age to go live with another woman, with whom he had another child. So when news of his death reaches them they head to the funeral where they meet this half sister for the very first time.The young girl's name is Kuzu, and they invite her into their home.
At this stage, regrettably, mush levels are reaching critical mass. Shot after shot we see the girls, all squashed within the frame, gazing at each-other, endlessly smiling. Kuzu's arrival neither rocks the boat nor stabilises their situation, but perhaps such bold gestures are unfitted to Koreeda's style. When he does pull away from this awkward group dynamic the film gains far more clarity, and even a little bite.
The three older sisters have a sort of pop group dynamic; The eldest is a doctor, a creature of control and responsibility; The middle sister seems a bit more Bohemian, but still works in a bank; The youngest is the zany one who eats all the time. It's enough to leave you squirming in your seat at times but as we learn more about them the reasons for their roles become apparent. Young Kuzu acts as a medium, embodying traits from each of them, the proverbial glue of the family. One to one scenes provide moments of deeper resonance and a visit from the elder sisters' birth mother- a late spanner in the works- prompts them to address the dad shaped elephant in the room beside them.
In recent years Koreeda has become increasingly fascinated with such things. The problem with Our Little Sister, unlike his recent efforts, is that the setup isn't all that interesting to begin with. Still, he continues to probe that conflict in the Japanese psyche, between traditional modes of thinking and the realities of modern life. And, like any auteur, the masters stamp is still clearly on it. Crisp natural lighting and perfectly framed shots insure that, visually at least, the viewer is rarely left wanting. The director's signature eye for transient details focuses this time on the ritual of food preparation, and how that process can often seem like a fingerprint, or a fossil, or a thread to the past.
An over sweetened slice of Japanese life. Disappointing, but we can assume that better will follow.