This gentle slice-of-life drama hides sharp edges

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Our Little Sister
RPL Film Theatre
August 11-14
4 out of 5

There’s a particular kind of movie Japanese filmmakers are uniquely good at (okay, two, if you consider extreme, gratuitous violence a genre). I’m talking about character pieces without villains or antagonists — just well-meaning people trying to overcoming whatever life throws at them.

My Neighbor Totoro is the foremost example: a teenager dealing with a sick mother and a younger sister lands in a challenging new environment that ultimately embraces her. It doesn’t get more uplifting that that.

Our Little Sister belongs to this tradition. There are no hybrid animal vehicles in sight, but every character has the others’ well-being in mind.

Following the death of their absent father, three young women become acquainted with their 15-year old half-sister, Suzo. Her living arrangements spell doom, so the eldest of the Kôda clan, Sachi, invites her to move with them. While the foursome gets along famously outside the occasional squabble, external factors threaten to interfere — namely the Kôdas distant mother, opinionated boyfriends and a complicated past they’re all too polite to talk about.

The westernization of a deeply traditional society has caused a number of cultural schisms, and director Hirokazu Koreeda has made a career out of exploring them. You may remember his feature Like Father, Like Son, a fresh take on the switched-at-birth storyline from the perspective of a father torn between responsibility and the chance to upgrade to a “better kid”.

In Our Little Sister, each sibling is a fully-fleshed character, but the younger and the eldest ones get the spotlight. Suzo feels guilt over her mother breaking up her dad’s first marriage, an event that rendered her sisters parentless. Sashi has assumed the role of head of the family and doesn’t harbor an inch of bitterness, but can’t help but wonder if her responsibilities are getting in the way of her personal and professional growth. Every conflict emerges organically and is tackled thoughtfully. There’s no drama for drama’s sake.

At 128 minutes, Our Little Sister is a notch too long for its own good and there’s an entire subplot so tangential to the main story it could easily have been chopped. Overall, though, it’s a nourishing experience — and not just for the heaps of food appearing on screen.