It is always an interesting case when the original and English titles of a film differ, and the ones corresponding to Our Little Sister are especially instructive. While the English title puts an emphasis on both the eponymous character, Suzu, and the three sisters that perhaps form the emotional core of the movie, the original Japanese title, Umimachi Diary (the name of the manga that the film is based on), is even more illuminating. Umimachi means seaside town, and of course seafood and boats play a not-insignificant part in the narrative, but what really interests is the pointed inclusion of “diary” (spelled out on screen, as in the original manga). The film does not adopt the day-by-day approach suggested by this word, taking place over the course of a year, but there is an unmistakeable intimacy that feels as if the viewer is reading a diary written in tandem by these four charming young women, one that is willing to go into minute detail on the most seemingly insignificant of events. The days may pass with abandon, but nothing seems too frivolous to cherish and preserve.
Our Little Sister concerns itself with a great deal of human interactions, and the one that embeds itself in the film’s core is the unshakeable bond of the four sisters. Thankfully, Kore-eda pointedly resists creating conflict (of almost any kind in the film, but especially here) between the three sisters and Suzu, as they quickly adopt and care for her with nothing but deep genuine love—though at one point Sachi (the oldest sister) is accused of adopting her for ulterior motives, it is evident that this is hardly the case. Much of the joy of the film is in observing how various configurations of the four pinball off of each other. There is a remarkable and irrepressible chemistry that exists between all of the actresses that seems to rise to the surface in almost every occasion, whether it be a playful argument, an explanation of an old custom, or idle chatter at mealtime.
As many have noted, in both praise and derision, Our Little Sister is an extraordinarily nice film; there is almost no conflict to speak of, and the one scene that does devolve into an actual confrontation is quickly followed by a pleasing resolution. But at least for me, this is a merit, all the better to immerse the viewer into the atmosphere of Kamakura. Kore-eda’s style is ideal for this feeling, using careful, slowly moving medium shots and precise to cover all of his subjects and subtly changing his method for the ever-so-slightly more important areas—the confrontation is shot in a sharply edited and direct way, a ride through a tunnel of cherry blossoms is in slow-motion.
And through it all, the unmistakeable idea of heritage is preserved. Kore-eda is clearly optimistic about the past as it becomes further and further from the present, as the sisters continually talk about the people they had loved and lost and dutifully perform rituals with sincerity. The continually rotating supporting cast carries this torch as well; only a few persist throughout and many only appear for a few scenes, but there is a sense that, even as society becomes more and more modern (a cell phone here, a pair of jeans there), things will stay the same for the better.
It goes without saying that all four actresses are superb, but it is worth noting that each fulfills a clear-cut role and never strays far from it. Sachi (Haruka Ayase, in a remarkably empathetic performance) is the lead, if such a distinction can be applied to an ensemble film, and she is a kind of emotional anchor—as the least mercurial and oldest of the sisters, she frequently serves as the mother and carries the strongest connection to the house in which they all live in, even to the point of denouncing their estranged mother for the suggestion of selling it. A kind of middle ground between Sachi and the two younger sisters, Yoshino (a wonderfully down-to-earthMasami Nagasawa) is one of the trickiest characters to fully grasp, even though the movie begins with her character, establishing her as a sort of audience surrogate. Chika (Kaho, perhaps the best performance) is immensely joyous, an absolute pleasure to watch as she somehow manages to be even more nice than the film surrounding her. And the catalyst of the film, Suzu (played by Suzu Hirose with magnetic charm) handles herself with poise—though she is perhaps not the most mature of the sisters, as the other three claim, she is undoubtedly grown-up, though she still is clearly a young girl going through the standard ups and downs of a teenager’s life.
Of course, even after a not inconsiderable amount of scenes that could conceivably serve as endings, the film concludes with the sisters together. Our Little Sister is sweet to the end, like the plum wine that conjures up a surprising amount of meanings throughout the movie (comedy, a connection to the past, a gesture of reconciliation), but it never once becomes saccharine. Kore-eda believes in his characters too much, imbuing them with so much life, to ever be anything but genuine, and in doing so he brings the viewer along, making them believe in Sachi, Yoshino, Chika, and Suzu.