Hirokazu Kore-eda has frequently made films about families and communities and what holds them together. Often times those films have great beauty and show us how love plays out in various ways, but they usually come with a bite as well. Our Little Sister (based on the graphic novel Umimachi Diary) has all the beauty, but it has skipped the bite we may expect in dramatic films. Rather, we get a film for which I think the best descriptor is “sweet”. I don’t say that in a pejorative sense, but with a respect for what Kore-eda has accomplished in this film.
The story revolves around a group of sisters. Three of the sisters live in the home of their deceased grandparents. Their father abandoned the family many years earlier for another woman. Their mother likewise left a few years later. Now in their twenties, Sashi, Yoshina, and Chika have a happy life. When they learn that their father has died, they travel to the countryside for his funeral and meet their teenage half-sister Suzu. They quickly bond and Sashi invites Suzu to come and live with them.
The sense of community within the film is not limited to the sisters. It included neighbors, but also those who are no longer living. Death is a presence within the film as well. There are various funerals or memorials along the way. The sisters have an altar in the house to honor their grandparents and spend reverent time there. Sachi, a nurse, is becoming interested in becoming a hospice nurse.
This is a set up that is fraught with possibilities for conflict. Will the sisters continue to get along? Are there animosities hidden under the surface? As one neighbor tells the older sisters, “She’s the daughter of the woman who destroyed your family.” When the older girls’ mother comes for a visit, will they accept her after she abandoned them? Is Sachi’s relationship with a married man a repetition of a family pattern? As I watched the movie I kept waiting for one of these possibilities to flare up and create crisis. But I waited in vain. That is not to say the conflicts didn’t arise, but they were always met with kindness. The sisters, their mother, their neighbors don’t exactly avoid conflict, but they respond in ways that are edifying rather than destructive.
That (along with the beautiful cinematography) is what makes the film into something “sweet”. It is a celebration of life that is lived with kindness. It recognizes that there are trials in life, but they need not overwhelm. The kindness that is manifest in the sisters and in their community does not seem forced, but rather, for them, a natural reaction to the conflicts that begin, but because of the kindness never really grow.
Kindness may strike us as a word without much strength or substance. However, the Apostle Paul included it in his list of fruits of the Spirit. When the Prophet Micah told us the three things God requires, to love kindness is included with doing justice and walking humbly with God. We may not really be used to a film that doesn’t revel in the crisis of conflict. But for those who want to spend their time seeing a world where kindness reigns, Our Little Sister is a very good alternative.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics