On the surface Our Little Sister, a new film from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, feels like nothing much is going on. Three grown sisters travel from their pretty seaside town in rural Japan to attend the funeral of their father, who had abandoned them to marry another woman. The young women end up taking their half-sister, Suzu Asano (the enchanting Suzu Hirose), who's just entering her teens, back to live with them in the family home they've shared for years. Suzu is personable and eager to please, but her arrival comes as close to a triggering event as this all but plotless film ever gets, nudging each sister to revise her view of their parents and the wounds they inflicted.
What follows is both less programmatic and less long-faced than it sounds. Life goes on pretty much as it always has, with Suzu settling into her new life and her new siblings' affections. A boy shows interest; there's a rapturously photographed bike ride through trees laden with cherry blossom. But the new status quo is uneasy, its fragility exacerbated by a visit from the girls' mother, who wouldn't exactly qualify as Mom of the Year. When the kindly owner of the local diner, a de facto mother to the girls, confronts unwelcome changes of her own, at least two of the sisters are forced to face up to the ways in which they may be repeating the very flaws they resent so much in their parents.
Our Little Sister continues Kore-eda's focus on the plight and the resilience of children who suffer abandonment or neglect, but the film lacks the sense of emotional emergency of his searing 2004 domestic drama Nobody Knows, which charted the flagging fortunes of small siblings afflicted with a feckless, unstable mother. Perhaps the comparison is unfair. Nobody Knows examined the inner workings of a real-life tragedy that dominated the headlines for a long time and sparked a national debate about the degradations of the supposedly stable Japanese family. Adapted from a popular graphic novel some of whose internal conflicts Kore-eda softened for the movie, Our Little Sister works in small shifts of emotional temperature, its turmoil observed with a serenity some might find enervating or oppressive.
Best seen, perhaps, as the view from later in life when equanimity and the bigger picture rule, the movie bestows a forgiving compassion on all its troubled souls, even those of the misbehaving dead. As always, Kore-eda shares his belief in the power of ceremony and ritual that, more than any epiphany or redemption, act as healing markers in the relentless flow of life. "That was a good funeral," observes one satisfied mourner who had reason to know the desires of the deceased better than anyone else present. Our Little Sister ends as it began, with the sisters contemplating the surge and knock of the waves that lap the shores of their circumscribed universe. Only now they reverse the adjectives they once used to dismiss their father as "kind and useless," a critical revision that reflects their appreciation of the lasting gift he has left them. She's standing right beside them.