The Family Ties That Bind

PG | 2h 7min | DramaComedy | 8 July 2016 (USA)

There are quite a few movies adapted from Japanese Manga (think Western-based graphic novels) but few of them of quality ever reach our shores and when they do, it’s usually blood-soaked, action-based stuff (“Ghost in the Shell,” “Oldboy,” “Alita: Battle Angel”).

“Our Little Sister” is different in that it’s very (surface) tame, and comes from a sub-genre called “Josei,” which is the Eastern equivalent of a young adult novel geared towards female teens. The Eastern title for this film and its source material is “Umimachi Diary.”

It is worth noting the word “graphic” as it is used here isn’t describing violent or disturbing content (although sometimes it does as in “Sin City,” “300,” “The Old Guard,” or “Road to Perdition”) but rather animation in block or panel form that is far more intricate, detailed (and longer) than garden-variety comic books.

No Storytelling Fat

“Our Little Sister” is full-blown Eastern art-house in its approach and methodology. It is spare, depends on a lot of narrative shorthand, and condenses a great deal of material into a small space. The film does what the most successful adaptations of American novellas do: It distills a larger work into a story with no missed beats and all of the emotional high points; it’s a near-perfect movie.

Epoch Times Photo
Three 20-something sisters attend his funeral where they meet their teen half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose, 2L) for the first time, in “Our Little Sister.” (Sony Pictures)

After the death of their divorced-and-remarried father, three 20-something sisters attend his funeral where they meet their teen half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose) for the first time. Beyond polite, mature, and soft-spoken, Suzu is understandably confused on how to interact with the others, a situation made worse because of her fractured relationship with all of the girls’ largely unfit biological mothers.

In what can be described as a calculated whim, eldest sibling Sachi (Haruka Ayase) invites Suzu to move in with all of them: herself; the middle child Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa); and now, the no-longer-the-youngest-sibling Chika (Indou Kaho). After a perfectly timed pregnant pause at a train station Suzu accepts the offer providing the first of many emotional crescendos.

A nurse and the de facto den mother of the bunch, Sachi is also the principal cook and is constantly at odds with Yoshino, a party girl with iffy taste in men and a tendency to imbibe too much.

Not quite ditsy, Chika is a free spirit type and the one Suzu bonds with first. Initially tentative, the new living dynamic soon finds a comfortable groove although it’s not without a few hiccups and bits of friction.

Lemons to Lemonade

In adapting the Manga by Akimi Yoshida, director Hirokazu Kore-eda strikes an adroit balance between joyous and bittersweet. To some degree or another, all of the girls harbor resentment towards their parents yet re-channel their anger and sorrow into positive energy which cements their bond even further.

Avoiding obvious emotional peaks and valleys, Kore-eda never strays far from a narrative comfort zone some may perceive as unchallenging and too safe but it is ultimately the correct tone for the story.

Less of a typical three-act narrative, the screenplay is more of a collection of short films, roughly three dozen of them, which, while presented in chronological order, frequently take on the feel of loosely connected allegories.

Epoch Times Photo
The film includes the preparation and consumption of many southern Japanese regional dishes, in “Our Little Sister.” (Sony Pictures)

In one such passage, Suzu is on the back of bicycle driven by a boy who is beyond smitten with her. They leisurely make their way down a road strewn on each side with towering cherry trees in full bloom. Culled together from multiple cameras, the segment zeros in on the look of utter joy and wonderment on Suzu’s face and it is sublimely infectious.

Sisterhood of the Eastern Palate

For serious and casual foodies, the film also includes the preparation and consumption of many southern Japanese regional dishes I’d never heard of including, but not limited to, whitebait and toast and homemade plum wine. Some batches of this coveted beverage take decades to fully ferment.

Viewers looking for the tumult and the often caustic edge of a “The Joy Luck Club,” “Catfish in Black Bean Sauce” or “The Namesake” might be disappointed and could consider “Our Little Sister” to be a little too uneventful, pedestrian, and ho-hum.

Kore-eda’s film could prove to be too safe for a few, but for those seeking a true reflection of real life in a foreign land and want to witness a fractured family repairing itself under unorthodox circumstances, “Our Little Sister” is an uplifting and endearing must-see.

It is a story that transcends region, ethnicity, gender, time-frame, and whatever your own definition of “family” might be.

Presented in Japanese with English subtitles.

"Our Little Sister"
“Our Little Sister” is an uplifting and endearing must-see. (Sony Pictures)

‘Our Little Sister’
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Stars: Suzu Hirose, Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Indou Kaho
Running Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Rating: 5 out of 5

Michael Clark

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.

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