At the center of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister is a house, and in the garden of the house is a plum tree. It is an old tree; generations of the family have seen it blossom and bear fruit, season by season. It is a tree at the heart of a house tradition, too, the making, storing, and consuming of umeshu, a sweet and sour green plum liqueur that is allowed to ripen to perfection over nine months beneath the floorboards. The family members prick their initials into the plums and these sit, soaking, as uniquely individual parts of the collective brew.
A family. A messy, powerful organism and a thing that Kore-eda, over the course of his film career, has continued to explore and expose, its raw bitternesses and its loving tendernesses. In earlier films, like Nobody Knows, heartbreak and tragedy are the centers of feeling; in more recent films, like I Wish, buoyant, infectious hope permeates. Our Little Sister tends towards the warmth of these latter films, and like the joyous, crucial moment of the speeding train in I Wish, there is a similarly ebullient defining moment in Our Little Sister, where two children on a bike fly through an avenue of blooming cherries.
And yet darker or lighter, Kore-eda’s films, so tied to emotional family drama, do not fall into cloying sentimentality. There is sentiment, to be sure, but the specificity of the domestic space and the willingness to embrace the way pain or sacrifice or guilt informs the characters’ lives and psyches fend off any merely trite emotion. Tenderness and sweetness are shot through with a painfully sore undercurrent that removes too easy a happiness. The cherry blossom ride is deeply joyful perhaps only because the blossoms remind the youngest sister of the family, Suzu (Suzu Hirose), of the deathbed of their father and his wish to live until the blooms appeared outside his hospital room window. And when the petals of another year catch the wind and lift off the trees, swirling their way down to the beach, Suzu collects them, pink and soft, their delicate structure now damaged by the rocks, wilted, bruised, and creased in the salty sea waves. The beauty of the blossoms is wrapped up in death.
The film begins with news of Suzo’s father’s death, but we do not begin with Suzo herself, the little sister, rather, with Suzo’s three older half sisters, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho), 15 years estranged from their father and debating whether they should make the long trip to his funeral. The funeral becomes the beginning point of a new phase of life for the sisters, for they meet their father’s fourth daughter, Suzo, for the first time, and in the impulse of a moment, extend the offer of their home to the orphaned girl, who, after a moment of quiet hesitation, equally impulsively, accepts. When Suzo arrives in the family home and sees her new room, Yoshino tells her, “You’re officially our little sister, so I’m dropping the ‘chan,’” a designation that does not suit the unique closeness and equality of sisterly relationships.
Suzo, however, cannot so easily feel perfectly at home, an equal to her new sisters, and cannot so quickly assume her right to such intimacy. While her face is shyly eager and betrays her yearning to become a part of this sisterly unit, she is not sure she belongs, not sure that at some point, she will be rejected, too much associated with her mother, the woman for whom the father betrayed the older girls’ mother. She watches the older three, apart, as they relate shared memories over a photo; she only timidly joins in the obeisance at the house altar, acknowledging the grandmother she didn’t know; she observes the older three sisters as tensions only sisters who’ve lived with one another all their lives erupt at odd moments.
Gradually, however, Suzo becomes more and more at ease in the day-to-day life of the sisters, living together in their old-fashioned, big, drafty family home, gathering together in casual closeness at the family table, where Sachi chastises Chika for scarfing her food, where the sisters argue over clothes, where Yoshino criticizes Sachi for her quick-pickling methods, and where the sisters laugh with and at one another in easy familiarity. Food in the home and within a family is beautifully realized motif in Kore-eda’s oeuvre. However hastily consumed at times, as one family member rushes from the house, it is a thing of flavor, scent, and texture that links that individual to a particular space, time, and cohort. It is an important moment for the older sisters when Suzo tries a family sardine dish for, as they believe, the first time. It is a meal that signifies something about who they are and who they have been. It connects them to one another and to their history, to their parents and their memories. It is an important thing, too, when Suzo joins them in harvesting plums and preparing umeshu, and Suzo finds joy in the very specific actions involved in this activity, even down to placing the prepared jars under the floorboards of their home, because she knows these actions are particularly tied to this family with whom she yearns to be enmeshed.
The film, then, tracks a gentle arc, where the drama and characters are developed by quotidian domesticity, gradually growing emotional ties, and small revelations of the sisters’ individual burdens of guilt or pain or fear. The question at the heart of the family is whether these women are, indeed, family in spite of a fractured history, whether estranged members, like a suddenly appearing mother, can be forgiven and whether their future, ultimately, will be bound to one another.
Kore-eda dares, in an age of Hollywood superheroes and grandiose threats to the universe, to believe that audiences also want to see something as simple and as simply complex as a group of sisters sharing a series of meals, smelling the scent of a grandmother in a boxed up summer kimono, making a family recipe, and scratching a new mark in the doorframe of the family home to note the height of a little sister. He dares to believe that these things will carry an emotional weight that will wrap viewers up into film’s world and keep them there, hearts full.
My own father spent the very earliest few years of his boyhood in Brazil, where his father, my grandfather, was employed as a Boeing engineer. He has very few memories of this time; he is told he spoke Portuguese, but he cannot speak it now. The photos of himself are more paper relics of a stranger than representatives of his own self. And yet, years after he left Brazil, as an adult, after he had his own children, my brother and me, he visited an olive grove in California and tasted a particular kind of home-brined olive: in an instant, his senses sent him, tingling, back to Brazil. He was, in that one bite, back in the space of his childhood, 45 years or so before and hundreds of miles away. It all came rushing back, out of the hidden, latent but rich spaces of the mind and heart.
We forget, I think, how much of our day to day lives, our memories, our relationships, are informed by something as simple as the taste of a particular food or the smell of a particular person. Kore-eda in offering the slow accumulation of tender, delicate specificity, domestic moments, routines, traditions, tastes, and textures, gives us a gift: a celebration of a part of our humanity that is not apparently heroic or grand but rooted in the very fabric of the body and being.
Out Little Sister first screened in Seattle at the 42nd Seattle Film Festival and opens for its Seattle theatrical run at Seven Gables Landmark Theater on August 12.
It opens in Bellingham at Pickford Film Center on August 19.