With another 90 or so minutes to go from when Suzu comes to live with the Kodas, very little of consequence happens in Our Little Sister. Sachi sees some potential romantic and professional changes, as does Yoshino. Chika does whatever it is she does all day, which mostly involves a boring retail job and time spent with her eccentric boyfriend, who keeps wanting to show people the toes that he’s missing. Suzu ingratiates herself to her classmates at her new school, while her half-sisters welcome her with open arms. There’s a subplot involving the ownership of a local diner, but it’s the one thread in the film that could’ve been cut. However, when each scene is so bubbly and sweet, who cares about things that make other films great, like momentum and tension? Our Little Sister is a hang-out film, a joyful Japanese idyll where characters palpably love spending time with their family.
Our Little Sister isn’t building towards a big event or decision, but that’s not to say that the characters don’t experience growth or realization. Sachi and Suzu are mirror characters, with both being forced into maturity by a parent, and while Yoshino and Chika are integral roles, the film is mostly about the oldest and the youngest sibling. Sachi had to take care of her distraught mother and her sisters when her father left, and Suzu found herself as the most responsible person in the room when her father fell ill and her step-mother proved incapable of dealing with his ailments. While no one rescued Sachi, she does see the possibility to rescue Suzu, and rescue her she does. It’s such an act of emotional generosity on Sachi’s part, such that she doesn’t hold a grudge against the offspring of the affair that broke up her family, that it becomes easy for her to discount any awkwardness Suzu might feel. The teenager can’t mourn for her mother when that same mother split up the family she’s currently living with, and her father is not held in high esteem in her new home either. Koreeda, in adapting the film from a novel by Akimi Yoshida, juggles these competing conflicts while the plot stays delightful and fluffy. There’s a feeling akin to Parks and Recreation here, where characters have backstory and baggage but they’re able to get lost in the pleasure they feel in each other’s company.
The performances in Koreeda’s films are consistently excellent and Our Little Sister features my favorite thus far. Nagasawa and Kaho don’t have the heavier material of Ayase and Hirose, but they’re invaluable in providing evidence of the fruit of Sachi’s labor. Yoshino and Chika are happy, a testament to Sachi ending her childhood too early and helping to raise them, and the respective actresses always keep that contentment near to the surface, even in frustration or sadness. Ayase is incredible, introduced as a woman in charge but not beholden to any of the negative connotations such a position often implies. Sachi is quickly shown to be capable of warmth, extending a kind hand to Suzu at her father’s funeral shortly after accurately bad-mouthing the corpse. Suzu’s presence inspires introspection in Sachi, something the character has possibly not had time for until now, and the doubt creeping over Ayase’s face is affecting and powerful.
However, Our Little Sister belongs to the titular character. Hirose’s Suzu is a marvel, giving an exceptional teenage performance. She earns endless goodwill from her introduction at the funeral. She starts the event downcast and shy, ashamed to be in the presence of her half-sisters, but after she accepts Sachi’s invitation and the Kodas leave by train, Suzu runs after them. This is a typical scene where departing trains are concerned, but Hirose infuses it with so much passion that the scene becomes heartbreaking and irresistible and brand new all over again. The years of stress and strain that Suzu took on come pouring off her with every stride. Hirose luminously displays competing bittersweet emotions in this short scene, prepping her for her arrival in Kamakura as the world’s most effervescent teenager. She’s an instant hit with her class, attracting a goofy boyfriend and finding a spot on the soccer team. The character is beloved by everyone, justifiably so based on how Hirose plays her.
I Wish had a journey in it with a special destination, and Like Father, Like Son had a hospital leaning on families to make a wrenching decision. The closest thing there is to a deadline in Our Little Sister is the ripening of fruit, so the sisters can make plum wine. That plotlessness is somehow made into an asset, thanks to Koreeda’s light touch and the performances of his cast. Not every film needs conflict, as exemplified by my new favorite Koreeda film, a man who keeps rocketing up the list of best working directors. A-