In his latest family portrait, Our Little Sister, Hirokazu Kore-eda chronicles roughly a year in the life of the Koda clan — or what’s left of it. When, years ago, her father left for another woman and their mother subsequently abandoned the family to live her own life, Sachi (Haruka Ayase) was forced to become a maternal figure to younger siblings Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho). The experience has hardened Sachi emotionally, a trait that finds its extreme opposite in the newest member of the Koda clan: half-sister Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose), their now-deceased father’s 13-year-old daughter, whom the almost-30 Sachi invites to live with them — and who exudes all the open-heartedness she lacks.
Kore-eda, though, isn’t content to allow us to observe these character contrasts and draw these conclusions ourselves in his adaptation of Akimi Yoshida’s popular Japanese manga series Umimachi Diary. Instead, he has characters directly declaim such observations for our benefit. “She has such an open heart,” the elderly diner owner Sachiko (Jun Fubuki) says of the newly arrived girl; later, Sachi concludes that, despite her ill feelings toward their philandering father, perhaps he did something right after all by giving birth to Suzu. Even a small physical gesture like Chika’s random fly-fishing hand motions pays off later on in a way that feels too neatly scripted.
More worrying than that, however, is an emotional reticence that at times verges on too subtle for its own good. At his best, Kore-eda matches the great Yasujiro Ozu in marrying an austerity of style with great depth of feeling in exploring often-repressed emotions in domestic situations. But though profoundly universal desires eventually punctured the placid surfaces of Still Walking (2008) and Like Father, Like Son (2013) with slow-burning force, Kore-eda’s manner is so serene in Our Little Sister that moments of bitterness and anguish don’t quite have the gut-punch impact they ought to have. One has to take Suzu’s word for it when she tearfully confesses her guilt over the way the past sins of her father still haunt her sisters, so passive is Kore-eda in dramatizing her inner anguish throughout.
Still, Our Little Sister often vibrates with such tenderness of feeling that it’s difficult to dismiss outright. The excellent performances from the four lead actresses help offset the occasional heavy-handedness of the script, with Kore-eda alive to their distinctive tics and gestures: Yoshino’s romanticism and Chika’s whimsicality counter Sachi’s hardness and Suzu’s innocence. No matter that plot here is relatively minimal, with only a temporary return of the mother who abandoned the siblings bringing anything like dramatic tension to the film. All one needs is a close-up of Suzu’s face euphorically looking skyward, eyes closed, as she rides on a road surrounded by cherry blossoms to grasp the laudable humanity at the heart of Kore-eda’s patient, warmhearted worldview.