Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)


These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

(2015) Drama (Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryȏ Kase, Ryȏhei Suzuki, Takafumi Ikeda, Kentarȏ Sakaguchi, Ohshirȏ Maeda, Midoriko Kimura, Yȗko Nakamura, Jun Fubuki, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kaoru Hirata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Masumi Nomura, Shinobu Ohtake, Fight Seki, Saya Mikami, Saya Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

 

The Japanese realize that life is contradiction; the hectic, non-stop pace of Tokyo and the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms coexist in their culture. While it sometimes feels like Tokyo is winning the war within Japan’s culture (although I would prefer characterizing it as more of an animated argument), films like this one are proof that the cherry blossom is still strong.

In an old wooden house near the ocean in the seaside city of Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo by train) live three sisters who inherited the house from their grandmother. The oldest is Sachi (Ayase), a nurse who raised her other two sisters after their father left for another woman and their mother, devastated, abandoned them. She is bitter towards both her parents, and in a bit of irony is carrying on an affair with a married doctor (Suzuki) that works in the same hospital.

The middle child, Yoshino (Nagasawa) is a bit of a party animal, getting involved with a conga line of bad relationships and drinking much too much. She works in a bank and doesn’t take life seriously and she is constantly arguing with her elder sister. Finally there is Chika (Kaho), a teen just out of high school who works in a retail store and is perpetually smiling and happy. Her boyfriend may look slovenly but he has a good heart.

One day they are notified that their father has passed away. Sachi has no interest in attending the funeral, especially since it is in a rural village far away but Yoshino and Chika go mainly out of politeness. They don’t have many memories of their dad. They arrive at the funeral and meet Suzu (Hirose), the 14-year-old daughter that their father had by his mistress (and later his wife) who had also since passed away. She was now living with her father’s third wife who seemed uninterested in Suzu and her future, although she was pleased that her step-daughters had attended the funeral – including Sachi who showed up unexpectedly.

It became clear to the three Koda sisters that their half-sister was in a bad situation and that she seemed to be a really genuine person – and it turned out that it wasn’t the wife who nursed their father through his final illness but Suzu. Sachi, moved by a sense of responsibility, asks Suzu if she would like to move in with them and Suzu is absolutely thrilled to say yes. When the three sisters leave on the train, the fourth sister sees them off with absolute joy.

When Suzu moves in, she is adored by those who know the sisters. She joins a local club soccer team and excels. She makes new friends at her new school. The owner of a local café is charmed by Suzu who in turn adores her whitefish bait toast. As for the sisters, they are overjoyed to have her in the house and even though all of their lives are changing, there is more love in the house than ever.

Yoshino gets assigned to assist a loan officer who goes to various businesses to arrange loans and finds herself becoming more responsible and less flighty. Sachi, who has assumed the mother role in the family since she was a teen is beginning to see that she can have a life beyond her sisters if she chooses – and that she can do things just for herself. She is also learning the value of forgiveness.  And Suzu is discovering what having a support system means. In the year from Suzu’s arrival the lot of the sisters changes immeasurably.

Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most promising directors and he has put together a string of impressive films to his credit. Many of them are like this one, which is incidentally based on a popular Japanese manga. He tends to put together movies whose plots on paper look unremarkable, but when experienced on the screen become powerful indeed. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better when it ends than you felt when it started.

It is also a slice of Japan on celluloid. We get a look how the average Japanese family lives from day to day, be it paying homage to their ancestors, delivering gifts to family, funeral rites and courtship, all of which is a little different than we Westerners are used to, although in many ways the cultural differences between East and West are shrinking.

The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking as we see both the rural villages and the small cities (Kamakura has a population of about 174,000 people at present). The film is presented through four different seasons, so we get a sense of the ebb and flow of life for the sisters. Their old house is a little run down but still beautiful in a similar fashion to a beautiful woman who hasn’t taken as good care of herself as she could but remains in her twilight years still a beauty by any standard.

The four actresses who play the sisters all do standout work here which isn’t surprising considering the reputation Kore-eda has for being an actor’s director. Most of the attention is going to Ayase and Hirose for their work as Sachi and Suzu but the other two have nuanced performances in smaller roles. I might have liked a little more attention paid to the two remaining sisters but the movie is fairly long as it is.

This is not a movie that demands your attention. Instead, it presents itself quietly, without fanfare or fuss and just lets you get sucked under its beguiling spell. Honestly, I had thought I might like this movie when I saw the trailer but how much I liked it was a complete and pleasant surprise. Kore-eda creates a beautiful, sweet and melancholy world that you want to dwell in long after the lights come up and he didn’t need a ton of special effects and CGI to do it. If only people realized that you don’t have to see a Star Wars movie to find a new and exciting world to spend time in.

REASONS TO GO: A nice look at Japanese culture and daily life. All four of the sisters have their own personalities and foibles. There’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy that is nicely balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: May lean a little bit too much to the feminine side for some male moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a small amount of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All four actresses who played the sisters were nominated for the Japanese Academy Award of which Hirose was the lone winner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mustang
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: As I Open My Eyes

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Home


Home

Marcia Gay Harden has just told this little girl that kids suck.

(Monterey Media) Marcia Gay Harden, Eulala Scheel, Michael Gaston, Candy Buckley, Pamela Jane Henning, Paul F. Nolan, Thomas Roy, Marian Seldes. Directed by Mary Haverstick

Home is where the heart is. Have you ever stopped to examine that statement? It’s meant to convey that home is the hearthstone where love resides, but the heart is so much more complicated. It is the source of everything from love to hate. If home is where the heart is, home is where the hate is as well.

Inga (Harden) is a housewife in 1969’s Eastern Pennsylvania in an area that is predominantly Amish. She is a breast cancer survivor, but that was child’s play compared to what’s going on in her house. Her workaholic husband Herman (Gaston) scarcely pays attention to her anymore. The two of them constantly bicker. She takes solace in her close-knit relationship with her daughter Indigo (Scheel) but even that is strained lately.

Inga turns to comfort from the bottle, and that strains the relationship with her daughter even further. The cancer has made a re-appearance, and Inga can’t help but dwell on the last days of her mother (Buckley), wasting away from cancer and morphine addiction, particularly as she tours the house of an elderly woman (Seldes) whose home reminds her of her childhood abode. She wanders through the home, flashing back to her childhood and is more than eager to purchase the home and restore it, but Herman, whose business is failing, refuses and the battle begins anew.

Much of the narration is done through poetry, ostensibly written by Inga but in reality written by the filmmakers mother, Mary Stuart Haverstick. There’s no doubt that the movie is inspired at least in part by the filmmaker’s own experience and it shows in some of the raw emotion of several of the scenes.

Inga is a marvelous mom when she is sober, flying kites and lying in beautiful grassy fields with her daughter, watching the clouds blow past (is there anything more wonderful than a summer’s day in a grassy field, watching clouds with your mom?) but when she drinks, she is Beelzebub. She lashes out at her daughter and all the demons, all the disappointments and frustration come burbling up to be spewed at the most defenseless one in the house.

This is a treatise on home and motherhood, and to the credit of writer/director Haverstick this essay is unflinching and honest, perhaps to a fault. What it also is (occasionally) is maudlin and melodramatic. There are times I wondered if I was watching the Lifetime Movie Channel; this would fit in nicely there.

For my part, I found Harden’s performance to be outstanding. In most other years there would be some Oscar buzz for it, but this came out during a particularly strong year for actress performances; that and because it was distributed by a smaller outfit, it was little seen outside of New York. Nonetheless, as flawed as it is (and it is), there is much to recommend Home for cinephiles. Movies like this can capture your attention and imagination, leading to further reflection on the meaning of home and the relationship between a mother and her child. A movie that inspires you to think? The horror!

WHY RENT THIS: Harden gives a tremendous performance. The film carries a very authentic feeling for the most part.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit on the melodramatic side, and sometimes sinks to a Lifetime movie-of-the-week level.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing scenes, particularly one in the final third of the movie when Harden goes on a drunken rant against her daughter. Some children may find the things she says to her daughter disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scheel is Harden’s daughter in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Twilight