Japan, what happened to you? During the 50s and 60s Japan seemed like an international force on a par with France and Italy in the world of fine cinema but everything just seemed to go to hell in the 70s. As far as I can tell this was mostly due to television taking a bigger toll on cinema in their home market than it did elsewhere but they’ve really fallen behind other nations, especially if you’re talking about the kind of non-genre arthouse fare that wins Oscars and respect. One of their great hopes is a writer/director named Hirokazu Koreeda, a filmmaker who’s been around for about twenty years but has risen to greater prominence abroad in the last five or ten years. Koreeda (whose name is sometimes spelled Kore-eda, I’m not sure which is correct) is known for making small scale intimate dramas, often about families. In this sense he could be compared to the second most famous of all Japanese directors, Yasujirō Ozu, but Koreeda has a bit more of a sentimental streak and obviously doesn’t have the same signature formal style. I haven’t seen a lot of Koreeda’s movies at this point, pretty much just his last movie Like Father, Like Son which certainly had its moments but which never quite worked for me, but I’ve been meaning to catch up with more and his latest movie Our Little Sister seemed like a good place to start.
The film is set in modern day Kamakura (a small coastal city known as something of a vacation destination) and revolves around three sisters in their 20s whose father left the family when they were younger and ran off with another woman. Their mother has also been out of their lives for a while but they seem to have landed on their feet and have good jobs. All three of them still live together in a family home (I’m not sure how unusual that is or isn’t in Japan, but this mostly seems to be by choice) and generally get along with each other. They hit a turning point of sorts though when they learn that their father, who had long since moved to a remote town in the North of Japan, has passed away leaving their fourteen year old half-sister without a blood related parent as her mother is also out of the picture. The sisters meet this teenager for the first time at the father’s funeral and extend an offer to have her stay with them in Kamakura for a while and she opts to take them up on this offer.
Describing the appeal of this movie is not always easy, in part because Koreeada makes a lot of what he does seem quietly effortless. In many ways it shouldn’t work. It’s a movie with very little conflict and no traditional three act arc, and yet it still works through the almost voyeuristic thrill of looking in on the lives of a handful of ordinary yet interesting and likable characters who are very well drawn and believable. This isn’t a revolutionary concept exactly. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a similar movie that comes to mine and Richard Linklater has been known to do similar things in his own chilled out way, but it is still something that’s relatively rare to see and rare to see done this well. Our four main characters each have distinct and believable personalities between the mature and driven eldest sister who is perhaps a bit addicted to being needed, the slightly wilder younger sister, or the middle child who is… well, the middle child. Then there’s the much younger half-sister who initially seems to just be a simple good kid, and who is a good kid, but who occasionally reveals a sadness beneath the tough façade.
Through all this Koreeda’s direction is careful and confident but also unobtrusive and unpretentious. It’s easy for these sort of observational movies to get a little too obsessed with realism and authenticity to the point where they become a little hard to watch but Koreeda is not above using the traditional language of dramatic filmmaking and doesn’t get carried away with filling his movie with mumbled dialogue or other such silliness. It’s all a pretty tricky balancing act and I think Koreeda mostly pulls it off, though I do think this is a movie that you need to be in just the right mood to enjoy. Seeing it in a theater probably helps with that, I can definitely picture someone watching it on DVD, pausing it a bunch of times, and missing some of the interesting nuances of the performances and seeing the movie as kind of pointless. I don’t want to oversell the movie too much as I do think there are definitely movies out there that have pulled off this sort of trick better, but at the same time I do think this is worth considering and makes me want to look a little deeper into Koreeada’s career. Above all I like the movie for how gosh darn pleasant the whole thing is and that’s a rarity in the world of well made artistic world cinema like this.