CINEPHILIA: It’s the little things that make Our Little Sister outstanding

Moments like this one form the backbone of Our Little Sister.

“He was kind but useless.”

“He was useless but kind.”

This minute reversal frames Hirokazu Koreeda’s eternally generous Our Little Sister. In every sense — thematic, formal, structural — this film is distinctly Japanese. Its serene, quiet power wrapped up in traditions is at odds with how we think and make movies in the West.

Like the work of Yasujirō Ozu, the film is influenced by philosophical and religious ideas of immutability; namely, that life’s meaning is wrapped in one’s contribution to a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth — memories and traditions being the things that keep this pattern together. For a character to change the order of a sentence is to offer a place in this paradigm, to remember them, to grant them a meaningful legacy.

This act of kindness and forgiveness is not without cost. A father ran off with another woman when his children were still young. He has passed away, and his three daughters have grown up and adjusted to a life with absent parents. The sisters live together in an old, creaky home that has been in their family for generations. The eldest utters the first sentence of this review as their father is being cremated, his ashes ascending to the sky in a cloud of smoke.

There is a natural cycle in Our Little Sister: the cherry blossoms bud, bloom, and wither, the plum trees bear fruit then curl up, the seasons change, generations pass and new ones are born.

Our Little Sister is a film about rewriting someone back into a family, giving them a place in the eternal. After the patriarch’s death, the three sisters find out that their father had another child, their half-sister, whom they take back to their seaside town. She isn’t just adopted but fully immersed into the family, quickly considered one of their own. She is taught traditions, making her part of the family lineage.

The climax is simple and easy to miss. The eldest sister, the matriarch of sorts, pens her half-sister’s height on the door frame along with the rest of the family, permanently engraving her memory into the foundation of the family.

This idea manifests in the very structure of the film. Our Little Sister is free-flowing, like the tides that wash and retract along the shore. It is not organized around three acts, but moments of beauty, sadness, humour, and most of all love. For Koreeda, this cycle of death and rebirth is given meaning in the everyday: existence as a thing of wonder unto itself. Koreeda’s elaborate staging of these seemingly mundane moments, which would likely have been cut out of most American films, become the backbone of this one: a bike ride underneath cherry blossom trees, fireworks reflecting off the ocean, and sparklers spraying flashes of light in the backyard.

Our Little Sister’s worldview is all-encompassing, linking natural processes like life and death to changes in economic and social conditions. It is also the story of one family’s place within this paradigm and the kindness and inclusion offered to those outside of it. Although the film tackles many subjects, such as the changing place of women, the effects of globalization on Japan, and the literal and economic death of a small town (the Japanese title translates to “Seaside Town Diary”), these things give way to something new and vibrant, yet also ephemeral.

Our Little Sister begins and ends with a funeral, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more vivid and alive film this summer.