Steve Taylor Reviews Our Little Sister for Touchstone
Our Little Sister is a window into rural Japanese culture. It is a heart-warming, albeit slightly surreal alternative to the view of Japan as industrialised, high-tech and fast-paced.
Three adult sisters share life in the family home. Together they have found a way to live despite being abandoned by their parents: a father who left for another woman and a mother who disappears for 15 years, crippled by grief.
At their father’s funeral, the three sisters meet their thirteen year old younger sister for the first time. In the face of shared grief, she joins them in the family home. It sets in motion the facing of an unfolding set of bittersweet, until then unexplored, memories. Our Little Sister began life as a manga.
Manga are Japanese comics and cartoons, an art form read by all ages. It is big business, an industry worth over $5.5 billion. Manga include more than action and anime. They have spilled into commerce and comedy, history and horror, murder and mystery, sci-fi and fantasy.
There is even a Manga Bible, published in 2006 by the nonprofit organisation Next. It aims to appeal to those who no longer attend church or find traditional Bible translations less than accessible.
Our Little Sister is Josei manga, a genre aimed at women in their late teens and early adulthood. It began life as a monthly serial: Umimachi Dairy. Created by Akimi Yoshida, ‘Umimachi’ means Seaside Town in Japanese. It suggests a rural idyll common among industrialised urban dwellers. The attempt by director Hirokazu Koreeda to turn the episodic nature of monthly serial into a plot arcing over 120 minutes is less than successful.
He introduces three patterns of life. First there is the daily preparation and consumption of food. Food is a setting for memory making and community building. Repeated scenes focused on food, both at home as the younger sister is slowly woven into domestic life and at the local diner. What emerges is an approach to food not like glamorous recipe books or celebrity chefs but as knowledge shared between generations.
A second pattern is seasonal. The movie is structured around Japan’s rural idyll. There are images of cherry blossoms in spring, the plum harvest of summer, and catching whitebait. These weave further layers in the unfolding of memories.
A third pattern is generational. In Our Little Sister, these involve funerals and memorials rather than births and weddings. Each of these three patterns amplifies the dysfunctional distortion at the movie’s heart.
Food, seasons and funerals create memories, each of which is distorted by the strangeness of the four sisters who live in a mono-generational family unit.
Mono-generational makes sense when your manga market involves women in their late teens and early adulthood. But as a way of life it ends up becoming a somewhat surreal ‘seaside’ diary.
Nevertheless, Our Little Sister is well worth the watch. Despite the attention required to read subtitles, the humour is rich, the characters rewarding, and the crossing of cultures endearing.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: forthcoming) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.