Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan 2015)

LIFF online still

LIFF online still

Having received much praise at the Cannes Film Festival this title now graces the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. This is the most impressive film I have yet enjoyed at the Festival. Kore-eda Hirokazu has produced a series of fine dramas and this is as good as any of the earlier ones. Like his earlier films the concern here are family and family generations. The main focus is on the three sisters. The eldest, Sachi (Ayase Haruka), is a sort of matriarch and works as a nurse in the town hospital. Second is Yoshino (Nakasawa Masami) who works in a bank and is easily impressed by unremarkable men. The youngest is Chika (Kaho) who works in a sport shop, has a relationship with the manager there and is the most fun-loving of the sisters. As the film opens the sisters’ absent father dies, leaving a second wife and a 13 year-old stepsister, Suzu Asano (Hirose Suzu). Sachi invites her, with willing support from her sisters, to come and live with them in the old family home: a beautiful, traditional building with a garden. This involves Suzu changing schools and making new friends there.

They live in a small coastal town. Kore-eda is quoted in the Festival Catalogue commenting on the importance of the place in the film.

“What interests me greatly is not only the beauty of the scenery of Kamakura – or of the four sisters – but also the accepting attitude of the seaside town itself., absorbing and embracing everything. It is the beauty that arises from the realisation – not sorrowful but open-hearted – that we are just grains of sand forming a part of the whole, and that of the town, and the time there, continue even when we are gone.”

Places are important in Kore-eda’s films, as indeed are meals and rituals such as funerals. This film has a number of both: mealtimes tend to be informal and to allow the characters to interact and enjoy each other. Occasionally they are also the site of conflicts. Funerals provide the time and space for the Japanese formality which is still offers impressive rituals on screen. Characters in Kore-eda’s films often climb upwards – steps, slopes and similar. They do so in this film, though with noticeably more effort than in the other films. The reward, for them and us, is the view from on high: not only impressive but redolent of memories and experiences.

An early beach scene in the film

An early beach scene in the film

This is a slow film and runs 128 minutes. The ending in particular take its time as Kore-eda works his way through different aspects of the relationships: between the sisters, between the sisters and their dead father, living mother and ‘auntie’: and between their friends and the setting itself. But when the final sequence comes it is wonderful: along the beach as the waters lap the sand.

Kore-eda has some of the style and qualities associated with Ozu Yasujiro. There is the same meticulous mise en scène and framing. He frequently uses the low camera angle, especially in interiors. The music, while of a different style, serves a similar function. But rather than static shots he frequently uses minute and slow dollies. There are even less frequent crane shots, though one – as Suzu and a friend watch the town firework display from a boat – is superb. Thematically this film is closer to the work of Naruse Mikio, especially in its treatment of loss and resilience.

I found that Kore-eda’s recent films seem to have a slightly higher quotient of sentiment and use more music than an earlier film like Still Walking (2008). But this film combines sentiment, and the pleasures of the characters with an ironic view of their lives and relationships. The film is developed from a manga by Yoshida Akimi. The production is excellent in every department. The version on release is on DCP sourced from Kodak Super 35mm. There are English subtitles. Artificial Eye have the UK rights so it should get a reasonable distribution.

5 comments

  1. Jake

    I loved this and can’t wait to see it again. I wasn’t as into Like Father, Like Son as I was Still Walking or I Wish,

    Like

  2. Alan

    A gorgeous, thoughtful film. I didn’t notice the 128 minutes; it was one of those films I could have happily sat watching all day.

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    • Roy Stafford

      I have to agree. This film gave me more pleasure than anything else I’ve seen for a long time. I’d like to be with all the characters eating mackerel in the seaside cafe.

      Like

  3. Steven Thauberger

    Greetings,

    I have a question regarding one specific scene in the 2015 Japanese film “Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary” .

    Around the time frame 56 minutes and 53 seconds, there is a very brief scene, lasting about 7 seconds, of a train moving along the railway that runs between houses. I was extremely surprised to see a train moving between two rows of houses on either side.

    This made me curious about how people could possibly be safe living so close to a railway track?
    History is full of many tragic examples of railway disasters and accidents ……..
    …… and to me, the idea of having a train running between houses makes me very nervous and worried for the people living nearby.

    I have tried researching online to find out where exactly this particular train railway is located, but I have not had any success yet in doing so …..
    I suspect that I will need to learn the language of Japan in order to clearly locate this unique feature that I learned about through this beautiful film, which by the way, is one of my most favourite films of Japan.

    Would anyone at AsianWiki know where I can find more information about this unique feature of Japanese Railways ?

    Many thanks for your time,

    A Canadian fan of Japanese films

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    • Roy Stafford

      I think the short sequence you describe is part of the Enoshima Electric Railway that runs from Fujisawa to Kamakura where Our Little Sister is set. If you go to that Wikipedia page, you’ll see there are just three other lines with stretches of ‘street running’. Overall, I think that Japanese railways (which comprise a host of smaller and larger private railway companies, including privatised formerly state-owned railways) have very good safety records comparable with intensive rail networks in the EU. You may be worried by the overhead wires so close to houses but relatively low-hanging cables of all kinds are a feature of small towns in Japan and don’t seem to cause problems. As well as railway lines, there are many tram systems in Japan and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between rail, tram and ‘subway’. Most rail accidents, perhaps not surprisingly, are associated with level crossings and passengers injuring themselves on railway platforms. Here is a report comparing rail safety in Japan and the EU: https://www.jreast.co.jp/e/development/tech/pdf_30/tec-30-17-20eng.pdf

      Like

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