‘Our Little Sister’: A Respite from Summer Superhero Movies

The following is my review of the film “Our Little Sister” by the acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, published in Asian American Press. I thank aapress.com for allowing me to post it here on my blog.

For those who might think a Japanese film would never make it to your local cinema, check this list of U.S. screenings:




Premiering last year at Cannes, and later screened at other international film festivals the world over, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Our Little Sister” finally trickles into the local theatres of North American cities, which is timely. In a world rocked by tumultuous strife and unrests, this latest from Kore-eda makes a quiet solace, offering a taste of the ideal in human relationships and harmony despite brokenness.

“Our Little Sister” is Kore-eda’s most recent work after his 2013 Cannes Jury Prize winning “Like Father Like Son”. Following his usual subject of relationships in various family situations, “Our Little Sister” sees Kore-eda at the helm as director, writer, and editor of this production based on the popular Japanese graphic novel “Umimachi Diary” by Yoshida Akimi.

The three Koda sisters have not seen their estranged father for fifteen years. Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho) are now adults, living in the family’s traditional home his father had long deserted in the seaside town of Kamakura. His recent death sends the sisters to his funeral, awkwardly, meeting the woman who had stolen their father’s heart. But it is an inciting incident that changes all their lives. They meet their half sister, 15 year-old Suzu (Suzu Hirose). Herein lies the turning point for the four sisters. Moved by her little step-sister’s mature and quiet demeanor, or maybe stirred by her own older-sister instinct, Sachi invites Suzu to come away and live with them in Kamakura. Suzu gladly agrees.

The new Koda household now is a haven of happy sisterhood. Living under one roof, we see minimal conflicts and constant congeniality. Viewers from a different culture may find the saccharine relationships unrealistic. Are there not any conflicts at all? Of course there are. Kore-eda deftly leads us to some slow revealing. After three quarters of the 120-minute film, we begin to see inner turmoil rise to the surface.

Suzu had to take care of her father in his illness and seeing him to his last breath due to the incompetence of her mother; here is a young teenager bearing the burden of an adult. Now living with three older sisters, Suzu can finally enjoy the childhood she has missed. She quickly captures the attention of other students in her new school with her soccer skills, congeniality and maturity.

In the Koda household, Suzu is the angel of harmony, stirring up love and life. Kore-eda may have spent too much time on the leisurely-paced, day-to-day living such that viewers might feel the lack of conflicts to move the story along. I credit the style to Kore-eda’s realism and a candid camera focusing on the subtleties of nuanced interplay among the characters. Like his previous films “I Wish” (2011), the yearning for family connections of a young boy is shown by his actions and not so much by words, or in “Like Father Like Son” (2013), wherein conflicts are portrayed by contrasts and parallels. Here, while still nursing a deep resentment towards her father for deserting them years ago, Sachi struggles with the moral parallel now as she carries on a relationship with a married doctor at the hospital where she works.

Moral dilemmas, what to choose, how to live, and the search for identity are the issues Kore-eda’s characters have to deal with, but in a way that is quiet and gentle. He introduces us to other endearing characters in the town, adding numerous episodes to build up a human mosaic of harmony in the presence of brokenness and even death.

The scenic seaside town of Kamakura provides a beautiful backdrop for cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto (“Like Father, Like Son”) to shoot the film, reflective of the idyllic life that can be had, even in an imperfect world. The arching branches of the cherry blossoms, landscapes and seascapes mark the healing power of nature. But also like the petals of the cherry blossoms, which third sister Chika likes to pick up and gather in her palm, life is ephemeral.

Reminiscent of Ozu’s films, the passing train is a visual metaphor for the passage of time, changes, and the transience of life. To enrich the visuals, Yoko Kanno’s original score sweeps us through with warmth and tenderness, as a supporting voice telling the story. “Our Little Sister” is a heartwarming film for the unhurried heart to savor.


~ ~ ~ Ripples


Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

‘Like Father Like Son’: A Parent and Child Reunion

Yasujiro Ozu and the Art of Aloneness

Floating Weeds (1959)

‘Floating weeds, drifting down the leisurely river of our lives.’



April is national poetry month… and I’ve been thinking poetry these days.  So that’s why the very title of this DVD on the shelf of the indie video store attracted me right away.  I took it down soon as I saw it was directed by Ozu.  Ozu’s films are visual poetry, the title ‘Floating Weeds’ is an apt prelude.

Floating Weeds (浮草, Ukigusa, 1959) is a remake of Ozu’s 1934 silent film ‘A Story of Floating Weeds’.  The title comes from a favored Japanese metaphor as the above quote depicts.  In this newer version the director has added colors and sound, and given his story a blossoming rebirth. The colors are vibrant yet the cinematography is contemplative.  Unlike some art house films, and despite its title, ‘Floating Weeds’ is enlivened by humor, human interests, and augmented by actions.  Despite the pensive mood the title evokes, I found it to be more story-driven than many of his other works.  However, it is characters that ultimately carry the story, and Ozu’s brilliant direction that makes viewers care about them.

The story begins with a train dropping off a troupe of travelling players to perform in a small town.  The master of the company Komajuro takes the chance to visit his former lover and see his son Kiyoshi, now grown up to be a fine young man, aspiring to attend college in the big city.  But Komajuro has kept his real identity as Kiyoshi’s father from his son because he does not wish his low social status as a travelling actor, and the vulgar circle he associates with to tarnish Kiyoshi’s future.  The plot thickens as Komajuro’s current mistress Sumiko finds out about his secrets. Burnt with anger and jealousy, she plots a scheme to destroy Kiyoshi by bribing the young actress Kayo to seduce him.  The young man soon falls for the actress, but the scheme turns into a full-blown mutual love relation.  Sadly, a marriage with Kayo would mean the quashing of his aspiration for higher education, and possible social reverberations and disgrace.

At the mean time, the drama troupe hits a low with disappointing attendance. The company has to disband.  Komajuro facing failure on different fronts, has to make choices not only for himself, but the future of his son.  In the final shot, the train that once took the travelling players to town now carries them off as disbanded individuals facing uncertain future. Like floating weeds, they drift on in the stream of life. And for Komajuro, he leaves town with the slim hope that his son would fare better than he in the oblivious currents of time.

I’ve enjoyed the subtle style of Ozu.   Here is one of my favorite scenes in the film, and the dialogues are as contemporary as you can find in a 2010 movie.  Whether one sees it as insight or foresight (considering it was remade in 1959), both are gems one discovers while watching the story unfold as casually as a quiet flowing stream.

The scene is about Komajuro talking to his son Kiyoshi as he arrives to his former lover’s home. All the years, Kiyoshi has only known Komajuro as an uncle.  Although Komajuro is ecstatic to see his son all grown up with a bright future, he is also wary that his travelling drama troupe does not measure up to what he would wish for his son.  Here in this scene, father and son’s conversation seems to touch on another issue: art and popularity.  Through this most casual dialogue exchange, Ozu might have conveyed his own ambivalence on the subject more sharply than any wordy treatise.

Kiyoshi: I’ll go see your show.  What do you play?

Komajuro: Forget it.  It’s not meant for you.

Kiyoshi:  Who is it for?

Komajuro:  An audience.

Kiyoshi:  I’m an audience.

Komajuro:  I know.  It’s nothing high-class.  Forget about it.

Kiyoshi:  Why show such plays?  Show something better.

Komajuro:  But I can’t.

Kiyoshi:  Why?

Komajuro:  Audiences today won’t understand good plays.  So you can’t come to see it.


In his commentary on the 1934 silent movie, writer and film critic Donald Richie notes that Ozu’s films are full of ellipses. There are story sequences he left out for the audience to bridge.  As well, he handled the story with restraints.  Such a subtle way of presenting the material is a very modern style of storytelling.  That might explain why I would care for characters in a Japanese movie made half a century back, where I have to read subtitles, and watch in black and white, or even silent.  Herein lies the ingenuity and artistry of Ozu, that an audience so far removed in time, space, and culture, would find universality and common ground to be totally absorbed.

The Criterion Collection 2-DVD set includes both the 1934 silent movie and the 1959 color remake. The first features commentary by Donald Richie, the later version by Roger Ebert. According to IMDB, ‘Floating Weeds’ (1959) is on Ebert’s list of 10 best movies of all times.

~~~~ Ripples

CLICK HERE to my review of Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story.


Yasujiro Ozu and The Art of Aloneness

Growing up in Hong Kong during the 60’s, I had my share of Japanese literature and films, as well, the early version of anime.  Books were in Chinese translations, films with Chinese subtitles, and anime needed no language.  As a youngster I had my fix of Samurai action flicks by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, or the early sagas of The Blind Swordsman deftly performed by Shintarô Katsu.  The fast, magical sword-fighting movements displayed in elegantly choreographed sequences defined what ‘cool’ was in the eyes of a very young film lover, decades before Jason Bourne emerged.

But I admit, I had never heard of Yasujiro Ozu (小津 安二郎, 1903-1963) before reading the book The Elegance of The Hedgehog, and since, have become a mesmerized Ozu fan.

In Muriel Barbery’s marvellous work of fiction The Elegance of The Hedgehog, I was fascinated by the following excerpt that led me to explore the world of Ozu. Barbery mentioned some dialogues in the Ozu film ‘The Munekata Sisters’ (1950). Here, after quoting elder sister Setsuko, Barbery wraps up the chapter from the point of view of the concierge Renée, narrator of the book:

True novelty is that which does not grow old, despite the passage of time.

The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup — this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to?  And something that, in our Western civilization, we do not know how to attain?

The contemplation of eternity within the very movement of life.

I could not find any copy of ‘The Munekata Sisters’, but I did manage to find a few other Ozu films on DVD in The Criterion Collection at an independent video store. One particularly stands out, both the film and the special features.  And that’s Tokyo Story (1953), the best known and most acclaimed Ozu work.


TOKYO STORY (with spoiler)



Instead of the macho samurai films of his time, Ozu chose to explore the quiet subject of family relationships, parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and from them come the topics of marriage, loyalty, aging, death, filial duties, parental expectations, and generational conflicts.  Through his perceptive camera work, Ozu sensitively revealed the undercurrents beneath the seemingly calm surface of daily family interactions.

‘Tokyo Story’ is about an aging couple Shukichi (the Ozu actor Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) from small town Onomichi going on a trip to visit their adult children in bustling Tokyo.  At that time, postwar Japan was cranking up her economic engine, and urbanization was taking off.  Shukichi and Tomi’s children were all busily engaged in their work and family, with no time or patience to entertain their visiting parents, albeit struggling with a thin sense of obligation. They passed the two old folks from home to home, and finally sent them off to a spa resort on their own, a supposedly well-meant package substituting for their absentee hospitality.

With his subtle cinematic language, Ozu explored the issues facing the family in urban, postwar Japan. I’m surprised that in a time when the rebuilding of national pride was as much an essential as that of the economy,  Ozu was brave enough to depict the collapse of the family, revealing the conflicts and tensions behind the amicable social façade.  It’s interesting how contemporary and universal they are.  Have we not heard of those ubiquitous ‘mother-in-law jokes’ in our modern Western society?  Or, in real life, do we not struggle between taking care of our own family and career, and finding the time and energy to look after our aging parents?


But the contemplative cinematic offerings of Ozu draw us into deeper thoughts. ‘Tokyo Story’ quietly depicts the truth of these issues: No matter how many siblings there are in a family, each person is responsible for his or her own decision and action.  Even in a mass society like Japan, one can still make individual choices. Despite the currents, one can stand alone against the tides, and act according to one’s heart and conviction. While the brothers and sister are evading the task of hospitality, the young widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (the Ozu actress Setsuko Hara) chooses to care for her deceased husband’s parents out of genuine love.  She stands alone in her kindness and grace, a selfless heroine in a family hinged upon superficial ties.

Illness and death too have to be borne alone.  Despite their being together all the years of their marriage, Shukichi and Tomi each has to face the imminent all alone.  After Tomi falls ill upon arriving home from Tokyo, the strong bond of togetherness in marriage quickly dissolves into helpless resignation of parting and letting go.  Shukichi soon realizes he has to face life all alone.  The poignant scene though is that despite his loss, he looks out for his daughter-in-law Noriko, appreciating her loyalty, and relieving her of further obligations.  Despite having no blood ties, the two of them have touched each other in a way that’s beyond flesh and blood. Noriko selflessly gives while Shukichi accepts and appreciates in the midst of aloneness. The tables are turned, while they are left to face life alone, they are yet bound together in an unspoken bond, one that’s far stronger than filial ties.

The Criterion Collection carries several sets of Ozu titles.  ‘Tokyo Story’ is one in a trilogy of Noriko’s stories.  Disc Two features ‘I Lived, But…’,  a two-hour documentary on the life of Ozu, and ‘Talking with Ozu’: a 40-minute tribute to the great director featuring reflections from international auteurs Stanley Kwan, Aki Kaurismaki, Claire Denis, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, and Hou Hsiao-hsien.  It also features audio commentary by Ozu film scholar David Desser.

~~~~ Ripples

CLICK HERE to my review of another Ozu classic: Floating Weeds (1959)