‘Our Little Sister’ Review: (Re)Making Family, (Re)Visiting Home

Tomi Haffety reviews Kore-eda’s acclaimed film.

After its premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister quickly rose to acclaim amongst both Japanese and global audiences, winning the Audience Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 2017. Set in Kamakura, a sacred coastal town south of Tokyo, the film follows the lives of the three Kouda sisters, who reunite with their younger half-sister, Suzu, after the death of their estranged father leaves her without a guardian and somewhat neglected by her step-mother. The sisters invite Suzu to live with them in their family home in Kamakura, and she quickly becomes welcomed by the family and community. This is as much a film about family ties as it is a coming of age story, and Kore-eda captures the blossoming relationships made as Suzu settles into the town.   

As a sixteen-year-old watching this film for the first time on a drizzly afternoon at home, I was instantly enchanted by Kore-eda’s subtle mastery of the representation of unusual family dynamics in the context of contemporary Japan. Our Little Sister is set during summer, the same season during which I regularly visit my family in Tokyo. Summer in Japan is like no other season around the world; the relentless symphony of cicadas onscreen is calming enough to make anyone nostalgic, even for the heat and humidity. The film makes me crave those family holidays in what is probably my favourite place on earth. From one of the earliest scenes on a small rural train, journeying to the bucolic edges of Japan’s eastern coast, to the sharing of cold soba noodles with their grandmother towards the end, this film could be a montage of my experiences of Tokyo. Our own trip to Kamakura to visit the Great Buddha is one that has resounded in my memory  – so vivid that as I watch Suzu cycle through a canopy of cherry blossoms, I can feel the same breeze. Taking lengthy walks around the town in the height of the summer, we visited temple after temple and ate enough kakigori (shaved ice) to keep us cool for the year. 

Although I am one of four sisters too, there are very few similarities between my family and the Koudas. While they all appear self-sufficient, my sisters and I still depend on our parents, and the positive relationship we have with them bears little resemblance to the one on screen. Because the sisters are adults when they welcome the youngest into their family, I watch the film as though the three eldest were the four of us, and imagine what it would be like for an estranged younger sister to join our already formed sisterhood. When I moved to London six months ago and found myself without my family for the first time, I re-watched Our Little Sister in an attempt to bring a piece of home with me. With all their contrariness, the sisters have an unbreakable bond of friendship, best conveyed during a scene towards the end of the film when, after having missed a summer firework display, the sisters return home and light their own in the garden. The unobtrusively wholesome scene captures everything that Kore-eda does best; the clear bond between the quartet is palpable in the dimly lit garden, with only fireworks lighting their faces.This moment is the perfect conclusion to a film about family reunion and the experience of sparking new connections with a person you have a biological bond with. 

My romanticised vision of Japan makes it difficult not to feel so attached to a place where I have only happy memories, and so through Kore-eda’s work I can relive those experiences again. A recurring scene in the film is of the four protagonists lounging in the heat in an open tatami room, sharing stories and snacking on cold plums. I could not count the times when my sisters and I have done the same in my grandma’s house, fighting over who gets to sit closest to the air conditioning. Our Little Sister helps me to transcend the physical boundaries of being apart from both my sisters and our happiness in Japan. When I watch this film thousands of miles away from them, I no longer feel alone.

Our Little Sister is available to rent and buy online. Check out the trailer below:

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