Even the gentlest caress too repetitively delivered can eventually cause abrasion. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s films, especially his recent string of honeyed, humanist explorations of childhoods, generational gaps and family dynamics, often have the feel of a hand on your shoulder, or a soft palm beneath your elbow, guiding you toward an ever-more-perfect sympathy with his finely wrought, desperately winning characters. And that sense of a careful human touch is one of many reasons to admire and enjoy the director’s unshowy style. Certainly, his last films, the affecting, Cannes Jury Prize-winning “Like Father, Like Son,” and the sublime and tiny “I Wish” both fit that pattern, in being tender investigations into familial bonds, both marked out by semi-miraculous child performances. But to say that “Our Little Sister” is a return to these themes is both praise and criticism: the lovely moments, the charming, held-in-check performances and the graceful observations of Japanese domestic life are present and correct and as welcome as an old friend’s embrace, but the reach of this whole film, long as it is, feels entirely encompassed by the bounds of Kore-eda’s previous output — in fact, from whatever your vantage point within “Our Little Sister,” it’s difficult to locate a single edge.
Before it gets lost amid the many episodic strands of the character’s lives, there’s a welcome high-concept simplicity to the story (similar to the switched-at-birth conceit of “Like Father, Like Son”): three grown-up sisters, who have lived together and relied on each other since being separately abandoned first by their father and then by their mother, invite their school-age half-sister, Suzu (Hirose Suzu), to come live with them, too, when they finally meet her at their father’s funeral. The relationships are ever so gently compromised in that Suzu’s mother was the woman who “broke up” the original family — a fact that manifests itself more in Suzu’s own sense of guilt (the sins of the Mother) than in any ill-treatment from her siblings. Aside from that glimmer of conflict and the resentment that briefly arises when the older women’s mother briefly visits, the closest to pulse-raising drama that we get are in the moments when the sensible, caregiving eldest, Sachi (Ayase Haruka), is frustrated with the flighty Yoshino’s (Nagasawa Masami) drinking and with Chika’s (Kaho) tendency to inelegantly shovel food into her mouth.
Yet, much can be forgiven because the film is still peppered with blissful moments, as these four beautiful faces lean in close to a fizzing sparkler on fireworks night, or as Chika mimes the throw of a rod to teach her boss at the sports store how to fish, or as the infinitely lovely, youthful Suzu rides on the back of her friend’s bicycle down an avenue turned into a “tunnel” by the arching cherry blossom trees. And the food (do not watch while hungry) deserves a mention of its own as every development, no matter how minor, is accompanied by whitebait on rice, or a bento box on a train, or a big bag of fresh pears, or the loving preparation of a family recipe for seafood curry. And these mealtimes, in turn, precipitate, “Eat Drink Man Woman“-style, their own intimacies and revelations. In these moments, the film is as touching and heart-lifting as anything Kore-eda has ever done.
And even beyond that, certain resonances do spring up so that sometimes it seems that amid all the little things-that-happen (Sachi becomes a terminal care nurse; the beloved owner of a small local diner discovers she is dying; Suzu becomes her school’s star soccer player; Yoshino gets dumped by her ne’er-do-well boyfriend) perhaps other, more intricate, themes will emerge. But these strands, like how the dynamic shifts when the three younger sisters band together to discuss Sachi’s moment of crisis, or the hint of a dark side that Suzu momentarily displays after she gets drunk on spiked plum wine, are never developed, and at best, are simply scuffs in the velvety nap of the film, easily smoothed back down.
Part of the reason for this is that Kore-eda seems to know that his film could easily veer into the realm of soap opera, and so often turns his camera away from those developments that might seem overly melodramatic. But in the absence of any grit or grain to the film, this starts to feel almost prudish, as though Kore-eda were constantly averting our eyes from any of life’s messiness or salaciousness, constantly pulling the film’s hem down a bit further to rest more demurely below the knee. He has never been a lusty filmmaker, but the sexless delicacy of “Our Little Sister” starts to feel more removed from reality than usual for this unusually nostalgic filmmaker — especially as it deals with three women whose love lives are emphasized as points of differentiation between them, and with one fifteen-year-old girl on the verge of maybe having her first boyfriend. This frictionless tastefulness, coupled with the lack of real conflict between the sisters, creates a sense of inertia as we dawdle over loving scene followed by loving scene, and these four lovable women continue to be content and wonderful to each other. It’s entirely pleasant to witness, but not exactly urgent.
If “Our Little Sister” has a signature shot, it’s a near-imperceptible, slow, horizontal track that lends an even more romanced feeling to the little vignettes that unfold within the frame. And it’s indicative of the feel of the film overall — here, Kore-eda does not dive in. He glides gently past these lives, slowly and gracefully, so we can get a good look, but only ever at the pretty surface of things, the serene faces of his cast, whose infrequent frowns pass as quickly as clouds on a windy spring day. Kore-eda’s trademark humility and humanism is here, and we do get glimpses, even stretches, that suggest the piercingly bittersweet vitality of his best work. But “Our Little Sister” feels like “Kore-eda lite.” Not that he was ever the heaviest of filmmakers: a lullaby of sweet but repeated notes; a cool hand stroking a brow long after the fever has passed. [B-]