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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: 5 days ago

The Deeper Meaning Behind Kore-eda’s Tale of Japanese Sisterhood

Cast: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky

Related films: Nobody Knows, Like Father Like Son, Still Walking, Shoplifters, After Life

Studio: Toho/GAGA/Shogakukan/TV Man Union

Year: 2015

Verdict: 5.5/6

Our Little Sister might be the slowest-moving rollercoaster of a movie you’ll ever watch, but an unforgettable ride nonetheless. When going for a loop and expertly tugging at your heartstrings, it’s just as riveting as any J-drama in recent memory.

Introducing Our Little Sister

Our Little Sister solidified Hirokazu Kore-eda’s standing as Japan’s undisputed master of modern family dramas, be it abandoned families (Nobody Knows), struggling families (Still Walking), severely challenged families (Like Father, Like Son), or makeshift families (Shoplifters).

No matter the angle, Kore-eda strums emotional strings that resonate far beyond Japan's borders. In hindsight, Nobody Knows or Shoplifters might be more debated, but not since Still Walking did Kore-eda showcase his mastery of understated filmmaking like in Our Little Sister.

Close to a decade later, it seems somewhat overshadowed by his other works, but few stand the test of time better than this film. The silent voices of the four protagonists echo the endurance of sisterhood in a country whose strong patriarchal traditions rarely work in their favor.


Our Little Sister Synopsis

Our Little Sister is a poignant and tender exploration of sisterhood set in the scenic backdrop of Kamakura. It tells the tale of three sisters: Sachi, Yoshino, and Chika. Bound by their parents' absence, they have crafted a serene existence within the confines of their ancestral home.

The sisters' tranquil life is punctured by the news of their father's passing—a man estranged from their lives due to past betrayals. Compelled to confront their family's fragmented history, they venture into the countryside to attend his funeral. It is there that they encounter Suzu, their introspective and mature teenage half-sister, a living reminder of their father's infidelities.

Amidst the complexities of their shared lineage, the sisters are captivated by Suzu's composure and grace under the weight of sorrow. In an impulsive but heartfelt decision, Sachi invites Suzu to join their household.

With Suzu's arrival, the narrative gently weaves through the seasons, observing as the four sisters navigate the ebb and flow of life together. They share laughter and heartache, celebrate traditions, and support each other through personal tribulations and romantic entanglements.

As the seasons pass, the sisters' bonds deepen, revealing the resilience of family ties and the bittersweet nature of forgiveness. The integration of Suzu brings a new dynamic to the family, prompting each sister to reflect on their own path and the meaning of kinship.

Our Little Sister poignantly portrays the beauty and strength of chosen families and the lasting bonds of sisterhood, highlighting the simple joys and subtle changes that give life meaning and make our journey worthwhile.

Japanese Cultural Ties – Past and Present Connections

While set in contemporary times, Our Little Sister reflects an ongoing dialogue between the past and the present. It captures a slice of life that showcases how individuals and families continue to engage with these dual forces in Japan.

The film's focus on the personal and familial can be seen as a microcosm of the broader national experience. The narrative is imbued with core principles of Japanese culture, such as respect for nature, the importance of familial bonds, and the value of 'omoiyari' (empathy and consideration for others).

Through the depiction of the sisters participating in annual local festivals or observing ancestral rituals, we feel the weight these traditions have in the sisters’ lives. This importance is further underlined by the subtle hints of traditional arts and crafts scattered throughout their home.

Kore-eda does not merely use these elements as set pieces but integrates them into the narrative, amplifying the film's emotional depth. As such, Our Little Sister offers a glimpse into contemporary Japanese life, culture, and societal norms.

Relevance of the Setting: Kamakura

The choice of setting is also deliberate. Kamakura, a coastal town just south of Tokyo, is steeped in history and known for its ancient temples, Shinto shrines, and scenic landscapes. Like its characters, Kamakura finds a balance between maintaining its historical identity and adapting to the pace of contemporary life.

The sisters' traditional-style home, surrounded by a rich natural environment, provides a backdrop that showcases this harmonious coexistence of tradition and modernity. As such, Kore-eda introduces international viewers to the city's beauty, serenity, and traditional Japanese homes, enriching the experience of Our Little Sister.

Somehow, though, time seems to flow just a little slower in Kamakura. The quaint atmosphere adds nicely to the film’s pathos and showcases how traditional Japanese culture is woven into the fabric of modern society, much like it is in Kore-eda’s storytelling.

Character Analysis - Japanese Archetypes in Our Little Sister

The characters in Our Little Sister are intricately designed to underline unique facets of Japanese society. The four sisters—Sachi, Yoshino, Chika, and Suzu—each represent prevalent archetypes in Japanese culture.

Sachi, the Eldest Sister

Sachi embodies responsibility and maturity. After her parents' departure, she takes on a maternal role, reflecting the Japanese value of familial responsibility. Her caretaker role mirrors the 'Amae' archetype—a term coined by psychoanalyst Takeo Doi—suggesting a person who willingly takes on the needs and desires of others.

Sachi's ‘amae’—her nurturing dependence—parallels Japan's societal structure, where interdependence is both a strength and a challenge, resonating with the theme of collective harmony over individuality.

It should be noted that academics specializing in Nihonjinron have heavily criticized Doi’s notion of Amae, meaning it arguably tends to describe Japanese culture or mindsets as inherently Japanese. This doesn’t mean that Sachi’s archetype isn’t real, but rather that it isn’t necessarily unique to Japan or relating to any notion of so-called “Japaneseness.”

Yoshino, the Middle Sister

Yoshino navigates through life with a more carefree spirit. Her character represents the struggles of modern Japanese youth—working, dating, and seeking purpose. Her archetype is that of an individual torn between societal expectations and personal aspirations.

Yoshino's quest for meaning and identity amid societal norms reflects a broader cultural shift towards self-realization, a theme that echoes throughout the nation's contemporary narrative.

Chika, the Youngest of the Kamakura Three

Chika brings light-heartedness and joy. Her character demonstrates the optimistic side of Japanese youth and embodies the 'eternal child' archetype—playful and content in her world.

With her effervescent spirit, Chika acts as a counterbalance to her sisters' more complex paths, infusing the story with a sense of lightness and continuity.

Suzu, the Half-Sister

Suzu embodies resilience and maturity beyond her years despite facing life's adversities at a young age. As such, she represents the archetype of the 'mature child,' often found in Japanese literature and cinema.

Suzu's precocious maturity and quiet endurance echo the resilience seen in Japan’s history, especially in its ability to rebuild and rejuvenate after times of turmoil. Furthermore, her composure and emotional intelligence highlight the strength often required of children in broken families.

As such, Our Little Sister weaves a narrative that delves deeply into the themes of connection and disconnection, its characters collectively embodying the nuances of a society in flux.

As these characters' lives unfold, the story offers a meditation on the enduring question of how one navigates the waters of personal identity when anchored to a collective cultural legacy.

The film invites viewers to explore how individual stories are interwoven with the larger fabric of society, setting the stage for a deeper discussion of the themes Kore-eda is so adept at portraying: the delicate balance between the needs of the one and the expectations of the many, and the quiet, sometimes unnoticed strength that underlies everyday life.

Our Little Sister Analysis – Tribulations and Transcendence

Deeply rooted in Japanese culture, Our Little Sister presents a tapestry of themes, including family dynamics, societal expectations, death, mourning, the ebb and flow of seasons, and the rich symbolism of food. These elements blend seamlessly to offer a portrayal that touches the heart, capturing the intricacies of Japanese life with its tribulations and capacity for joy.

In the intricate fabric of Japanese society, the concept of family is not merely a unit of kinship but a reflection of deep-seated cultural paradigms. Our Little Sister deftly unravels these complex familial threads, offering viewers an intimate portrayal of the Koda sisters who navigate the interplay between personal desires and the collective will of the family.

Subtly Changing Family Dynamics in Japan

Within the nuanced hierarchy of the Koda household, Sachi emerges as the matriarch, embodying the revered Confucian tenet of filial piety. Her assumption of this role underscores the entrenched sense of duty and respect for elders.

This theme is further accentuated through the sisters’ concerted efforts to preserve 'wa'—the harmonious unity that is the bedrock of Japanese social interaction. The deliberate maintenance of this harmony, even at the expense of individual aspirations, paints a vivid picture of the societal fabric in which their lives are enmeshed.

Sachi's maternal surrogacy, Yoshino's quest for independence, Chika's carefree demeanor, and Suzu's precocious maturity each reflect the multifaceted nature of contemporary Japanese womanhood and the delicate balance between traditional roles and personal growth.

The Koda sisters, each adapting to the roles dictated by familial hierarchy, exemplify the delicate dance between society's ingrained expectations and the burgeoning pursuit of self. The film does not merely capture the ethos of Japanese familial interactions; it is a subtle commentary on the evolving dynamics that continue to shape them in the face of modern challenges.

This interplay between the private sphere of familial relationships and the public domain of societal norms is a central theme that Kore-eda explores with sensitivity and depth, inviting the audience to reflect on the universal nature of the family as a cornerstone of the human experience.

Exploring Death and Mourning in Japanese Culture

Our Little Sister opens with the somber news of the Koda sisters' distant father passing away, serving as a catalyst for a profound exploration of death and mourning within the Japanese cultural context.

In Japan, these processes are approached with solemn reverence and ritualistic care. As such, the sisters' choice to attend the funeral, despite the emotional distance from their father, underscores the enduring principle of 'on.' This concept, deeply embedded in Japanese tradition, signifies a deep-seated debt of gratitude and duty to one's parents and ancestors, transcending personal grievances.

Kore-eda delves further into the rich tapestry of Japanese spiritual customs by illustrating the practice of 'mukae-bi,' a poignant Buddhist ritual that illuminates the path for the spirits of the recently deceased during their journey to the afterlife.

Through this, the film touches upon the profound respect for the cycle of life and death and the importance of rituals that provide solace and structure during times of loss.

The film's delicate portrayal of the sisters grappling with the rituals of death offers a window into the collective Japanese conscience. It reveals the complex layers of grief, respect, and familial duty that come to the forefront when a life is honored and released into the ethereal.

The somber acts of mourning are imbued with a sense of beauty and dignity, reflecting the belief that how one responds to death reflects the living's relationship with the transient nature of existence.

In Our Little Sister, death is not a mere cessation but a continuation of bonds that tie the sisters to their lineage and cultural heritage. While facilitating mourning, the rituals also reaffirm life and the living connections among those who remain.

Food Symbolism and the Reverence of Seasons in Our Little Sister

Food is not merely sustenance but a rich symbol interlaced with the narrative threads of Our Little Sister. It represents a confluence of tradition, familial bonds, and Japanese philosophy that underscores reverence for each fleeting moment—embodied in the concept of 'Ichigo ichie,' which can be loosely translated as 'once in a lifetime.'

The sisters' communal experiences of preparing and sharing meals epitomize this notion, turning daily life into a canvas of meaningful, ephemeral encounters.

The film's portrayal of 'umeshu'—a homemade plum wine—preparation, with plums picked at the height of their seasonal perfection, becomes a poignant metaphor for life itself. The patience required to allow the wine to mature speaks to the virtue of waiting and the sweet rewards that time brings.

As the plum wine ferments, so do the relationships among the sisters, growing richer and more complex with time. This process resonates with the Japanese reverence for seasonal changes. Each period of the year is celebrated for its unique produce and culinary traditions, thereby deepening the connection between the land and the table.

Moreover, the inclusion of 'umeshu' ties the story to the cycles of the seasons, each bearing its own culinary rituals and significance. The act of making 'umeshu' is steeped in an appreciation for the impermanence of the fruit's ripeness, paralleling the film's broader themes of the transient beauty of life and the importance of cherishing the present.

Through Kore-eda's lens, cooking and eating become acts of remembrance and reverence, a ritualistic celebration of the season's bounty, and a testament to the enduring legacy of those who have passed on their culinary heritage.

Thus, the shared meals serve as a medium for the sisters to honor their history, reconnect with each other, and engage with the cycles of nature that are integral to their cultural identity.

In these quiet, understated moments, Our Little Sister transcends the boundaries of its medium, becoming an evocative exploration of how Japanese society reveres the natural world, the bonds of family, and the rich tapestry of life's experiences.

The Making of Our Little Sister

Kore-eda’s cinematographer, Mikiya Takimoto, employs a subtle yet evocative visual language. The camera work is understated yet sophisticated, often using natural light to enhance the film's organic feel.

The composition of each frame is carefully constructed to reflect the characters' internal states, with their emotions often mirrored in the landscapes and interiors. The cinematography avoids dramatic flourishes, instead opting for a consistency that allows viewers to fully immerse themselves in the sisters' world.

Like Kore-eda’s Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister’s camera work is characterized by its fluidity and ability to capture moments of stillness and contemplation. Static shots and slow pans give the film a meditative quality, while handheld shots are employed judiciously to bring a sense of immediacy and intimacy.

The rustle of leaves, the murmur of the sea, and the bustling of the household all contribute to the film's sense of place. Dialogues are clear and carry emotional weight, allowing the actors’ performances to shine through without being overshadowed by extraneous noise.

Score and Editing

Yoko Kanno’s score is notable for its restraint and elegance. It is used sparingly, ensuring that it resonates with emotional significance when it surfaces. Kanno’s compositions echo the narrative's gentle pace, providing a subtle aural backdrop to the sisters' story. The music weaves through scenes with a lightness that complements the film's contemplative nature.

Moreover, the film's pacing is deliberate and measured. Kore-eda is known for his patience in allowing scenes to unfold naturally, giving the audience time to engage with the characters and their environment. The transitions between scenes are smooth, and the natural rhythms of daily life are often used as a guide.

Essentially, Our Little Sister's film style is characterized by a harmony between visual, aural, and narrative elements. Kore-eda's craftsmanship lies in his ability to use these elements to create a cinematic world that both reflects reality and expresses the story he seeks to tell.

Contemplating Kinship - Our Little Sister in the Kore-eda Canon

As mentioned above, Our Little Sister shares a thematic kinship with Kore-eda’s other works, such as Nobody Knows, Still Walking, and Like Father, Like Son. Nuanced portrayals of family dynamics and kinship in contemporary Japan bind these films together.

In Nobody Knows, Kore-eda explores the theme of abandonment and resilience through the lives of four siblings left to fend for themselves. This motif resonates in Our Little Sister, though the latter takes a softer approach, focusing on the sisters' supportive relationships rather than the stark survivalist angle in Nobody Knows.

Both films, however, meditate on the sibling bond and the idea of children shouldering responsibilities far beyond their years.

Still Walking offers a look at family tensions and the weight of expectations over a single day’s family reunion. The film's depiction of the complexities within a seemingly ordinary family mirrors Our Little Sister in its exploration of unresolved grief and the layers of individual roles within a family unit.

The rituals of memory and presence, key themes in Still Walking, are subtly echoed in the gatherings and meals shared by the four sisters.

Like Father, Like Son presents a puzzle of identity and nature versus nurture as two families learn that their sons were switched at birth. The question of what defines a family—also at the heart of Our Little Sister—is dissected through the lens of paternal love and the ties that bind parents to their children.

Both films showcase Kore-eda's fascination with the intricate web of relationships and the underlying affection that can persist even when those bonds are challenged.

Across these works, Kore-eda employs a gentle narrative touch, often relying on the minutiae of daily life to reveal larger truths about his characters and their interpersonal connections. While distinct in its narrative, Our Little Sister continues his cinematic contemplation on the essence of family.

Whether dealing with the ramifications of abandonment, the enduring ache of old resentments, or the complexities of blood ties, his films persistently return to the notion of kinship.

They examine how these connections withstand and adapt to life's trials, ultimately affirming the strength and perseverance inherent in familial bonds; however they are formed or challenged.

This kinship among the films enriches their individual narratives and weaves a larger story about the evolution of the concept of family in modern society. Kore-eda's oeuvre, thus, can be seen as a multifaceted exploration of family, where Our Little Sister acts as both a complement and a counterpoint to the themes established in his earlier works.

A geisha looks into the camera. Under her face it reads "A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Film".

Final Verdict: Our Little Sister Review

As usual, Kore-eda’s cinematography is understated, somber, and drenched in a heartfelt atmosphere, but even more so, the centerpiece of the film is the chemistry between the actors.

The four sisters are the kind of characters you immediately care for when their presence graces the screen. Their relatable bond and the realistically portrayed issues they deal with in their daily lives make every scene gripping.

Moreover, dialogue has always been Kore-eda’s forte, which is certainly underlined in Our Little Sister. Having written the script as well, it becomes evident how Kore-eda has matured over the years. Flowing back and forth between recurring themes and passages, never failing to highlight underlying connotations or emotions, the dialogue is indeed like a strain of carefully orchestrated sonnets.

The fact that the story mostly takes place in an age-old Japanese house where four girls go about their daily lives makes it all the more impressive. It may seem mundane on paper, but the impact is as powerful as only Kore-eda can make an everyday family drama.

Our Little Sister is perhaps the slowest-moving rollercoaster of a movie you’ll ever watch, but it’s a ride that is not easily forgotten. Who wouldn’t remember a snail-tempo rollercoaster anyway? Going for a loop is certainly no less terrifying, and that is how this film feels. Before you realize it, your emotions are turned upside down, yet you don’t want the ride to end.


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