Sagami Bay, blue hydrangeas, pale-pink cherry blossoms, freshly-picked plums, freshly-caught seafood, torrential rain, and four very elegant and dignified sisters who are as tough as mountains. In Our Little Sister (from the novel Umimachi Diary), Kore-eda conveys an exquisite but very real world where time, nature, memory, and community both serve as foreground and background to the story. No less important than the drama of the four sisters is the drama of seasons changing, communities shifting, death, life, and family beyond one’s own.
The adult Koda sisters—Sachi, Yoshino and Chika—welcome into their home their adolescent half-sister Suzu after their father dies. They all meet for the first time at their father’s funeral, which is hosted by their father’s third wife, and from which the sisters’ own mothers are absent. The sisters recognize something in each other, recognize the family resemblance, the kindred spirit, and most of all, empathize. After all, their father abandoned their respective mothers, leaving them to care for people in his wake. The women rise above the sins of the father and create their women-centered world where they can forge new and happier lives together with no fear of abandonment. They recognize that though their own mothers have disappointed them in some way, they have to look beyond their past mistakes and try to make the best of the rest of their lives together. Though the sisters work at their relationship with men—whether boyfriend, friend, boss, or father—their female attachments are just as important.
These are wise women, wise beyond their years – they know that something greater is at stake than their individual selves, hurts, losses, and disappointments. While the father’s death and strong afterlife presence-in-absence precipitates all the drama, their actions (particularly in the memorials during the year which follows his death) suggest their understanding that their drama is but one small part of a larger cycle of life and time. They move obligingly with the cycle of the seasons, which in turn, transform their loss: sports in the fall for Suzu; the spring harvest of the plums which they make into wine fashioned from their grandmother’s recipe; the heavy summer rains which mark their father’s final memorial. They follow the landscapes beloved by their father and eat the seasonal seafood he craved. Kore-eda, speaking of the film, says, “I thought it would be better to [film] [the sisters] as part of a landscape as opposed to in a documentary style.” In this way, we are guided gently toward a philosophy where life, death, humanity, nature, and time blend seamlessly into one landscape.