I recently watched Our Little Sister (Japanese: Umimachi Diary) on a plane trip. I went into it completely blind, but liked it enough to watch it again on the return trip. It is a beautiful film, though not in the traditional sense. Eschewing the common structure of build-up, climax, and denouement, it instead shines as a quiet yet effective meditation on family life, small-community life, and well…life in general.

The film is based off the ongoing manga Umimachi Diary (which translates to Seaside-town Diary), by Yoshida Akimi, and is directed by Koreeda Hirokazu. The story begins as the three grown-up Kouda sisters learn that their estranged father has died. At the funeral, they meet their school-aged step-sister, and on a whim, take her in to live with them. The rest of the film is devoted to slowly following the mundane events in the four sister’s lives.

Indeed, the plot can only be described as slow and mundane. But it’s a deliberate choice, and an effective one. Through its relaxed pacing, Our Little Sister depicts a quiet life by the sea, and the beauty of everyday moments. Friends and families enjoy the food at a local diner, attend the kids’ soccer games, make plum wine as a family, among many other mundane things. But the film also weaves in magical sequences like fireworks on the water, or a breathtaking bike ride in a “tunnel” of cherry blossoms. The camera seems to deliberately slow the pacing, with static shots of doorways and foyers as characters slowly approach each other before their conversations. This pacing allows the viewer to relax and unwind, and appreciate the occasional moment of beauty.

Ride through cherry blossoms. Image credit: https://ritsunodoramaland.wordpress.com/2016/01/10/umimachi-diary-our-little-sister-review/
Ride through cherry blossoms. Image credit: https://ritsunodoramaland.wordpress.com/2016/01/10/umimachi-diary-our-little-sister-review/

To add to the relaxed feel, Our Little Sister’s musings on family matters is never heavy-handed: in fact, some might argue they’re presented too fleetingly. One of the biggest potential conflicts is in the teenage-step sister Suzu (Hirose Suzu). She was not only burdened with caring for her father at his deathbed, but also feels guilty as the child of an affair that broke her step-sisters’ family apart. The film could have chosen to explore her emotional scars, but seems happy to show her integrate into her new life, only occasionally bringing up her inner tumoil. There is also a conflict of the Kouda sisters’ mother wanting to sell the house that the girls have grown attached to, but she quickly realizes her children’s views, and the storm blows over almost as soon as it starts.

In fact, the best-explored (and most compelling) character conflict is probably that of Sachi (Ayase Haruka). As the oldest sister who was still young when her parents separated, Sachi prematurely took on parental responsibilities, and this forged her personality. You can see this in how she mothers her sisters with both authority and compassion, takes pride in being a nurse, and keeps most of her emotions to herself [1]. She hates that her father had extramarital affairs, but empathizes with his compassion to help other women, and spends most of the film struggling to reconcile this conflict. The film portrays Sachi as a complex character, but does so only with disconnected vignettes, leaving viewers to piece things together themselves. It seems like the film wants the viewers to appreciate everyday life first, and worry about conflicts and character arcs second.

When you can only talk to your sister when drunk. Credit: see above
When you can only talk to your sister when drunk. Credit: see above

Speaking of life, it crops up everywhere in Our Little Sister. There’s a melancholic cyclic feel to the story, with two separate funerals, one rememberance ceremony, and Sachi contemplating working in terminal care. Throughout the film, these bittersweet moments are juxtaposed with the mundane and magical. It seems as if Our Little Sister wants to show the viewers all walks of life–death and mourning, but also quiet vibrancy–in this seaside community.

In the end, the film succeeds in its relaxed pacing and in showcasing the beauty of everyday life, but chooses only to briefly muse on matters of family and life and death. Go in with that knowledge and an open mind, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

 

[1] It’s really cute that the second sister Yoshino (Nagasawa Masami) only has the courage to be emotionally honest with her older sister when drunk.

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