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Movie Reviews

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary) (2016)

A disappointing slice-of-life melodrama that offers little in the way of actual conflict or purpose.

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Our Little Sister, the latest by Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, is a family drama about three women banding together to take care of their half-sister after their estranged father passes away. The Kouda sisters, comprised of Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho), only meet his 14-year old daughter Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose) from his other family for the first time at his funeral. With nowhere left for her to go, Sachi, the eldest daughter, invites Suzu to live with her and her sisters in Kamakura.

The Kouda sister’s bitterness over their father’s fifteen-year absence to make another family is an emotional weight they’ve carried throughout the years, but despite their obvious resentment they never hold it against Suzu. However, their mother and great-aunt aren’t as accepting of Suzu, they’re nothing short of outraged at the idea of housing their father’s “other” child living under their roof. Despite the Kouda’s reservations over their father, Suzu doesn’t exhibit the same feelings as them, which adds a bit of mystery as to her relationship with him.

Our Little Sister is a slow-burn from beginning to end , really more a traditional slice-of-life film than a traditional three-act narrative film. Based on the manga series Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida, Koreeda’s adaptation feels like a truncated piece cut from something much larger. There isn’t much context given to characters’ emotions and we spend much of the second act at Suzu’s new school, who adjusts rather well, even joining the soccer team, with very little drama or conflict to follow.

One wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that this film would focus extensively on its characters given its narrative predisposition, but the film doesn’t concern itself with any characterization, focusing instead on quotidian moments of Suzu’s new life among her half-sisters.

Although the second act is supposed to build the characters and conflict, there’s little in the way of real obstacles to speak of. The Kouda matriarchs are displeased at the thought of Suzu living with the Koudas, but even this doesn’t add affect to the story in any significant way. There’s also the fact that their father is painted in a negative light, yet there’s very little context around the emotional distress he has caused within their family. We’re not granted flashbacks or any real deep insight to why, beyond the fact he left their mother for someone else, leaving us in the dark to piece things together.

There’s no sense of exploration, emotional or otherwise, and when Suzu so readily agrees to join the Kouda sisters there doesn’t seem to be any motivation behind this. One lingers on the hope of a big reveal that will truly bring everything together, explaining why a young teenager would move in with grown women she just met. Even the reason for her leaving her hometown fails to satisfy much, though we are offered a brief explanation towards the end that comes (and goes) like a leaf in the wind.

Our Little Sister isn’t a bad movie by any definition of the term, but it often fails on a number of levels. As an audience member there’s very little to cling on in terms of story, as the film seems comfortable to offer little more than prolonged family drama. There’s no juicy conflict or salacious scandal to keep one interested to the end. Ultimately, here is a film offering very little in the way of context, emotional trajectories, or purpose, accomplishing almost nothing in the process.