‘Step is life!’
A quietly moving and melancholic outsider tale
There are many reasons this film will leave you sobbing. First of all this may just be Studio Ghibli’s last film, at least for long while, if not ever. What an extraordinary note to go out on. When Marnie Was There is prime Ghibli, top-standard and the epitome of the brilliance the Japanese anime powerhouse is capable of. It also happens to be their most understated film yet.
A quietly touching family drama
Our Little Sister is a wonderful example of a sentimental yet ultimately subtle delight of a film. Watching it is a bit like being in a 128 minute-long embrace, warm and imitate with undercurrents of deep emotion. There’s no real melodrama – no dramatic shouting matches, intensive confrontations or shocking revelations – it’s far more real than that. We start the film with the character being total strangers to us then end the film feeling as if we are part of the family.
15 years ago a father left his wife and three young daughters behind. Soon after his heartbroken wife left the daughters in the care of her mother and left the town. 15 years later and the three, now fully grown, receive a phone call that their father has died, leaving behind his 14-year-old daughter who nursed him until the end. The trio – 29 year old Sachi (Haruka Ayase), 22 year old Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and 19 year old Chika (Kaho) – travel to his funeral and to meet their little sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose). The girls make an offer to the now orphaned Suzu, that she could come and live with the three of them in their big house in Kamakura.
What is so effective about this film as it doesn’t require a big overarching plot – there’s no big problem or issue to solve. Instead we watch the three women over a period of about a year as they bond and face different issues within their own personal lives. Days blend into weeks with only a few references to dictate how much time has passed – at one point the three tell their little sister that in six months they’ll be able to undertake the family tradition of making plum wine, later in the film they do so etc. This alone with the absence of a melodramatic narrative instead presents a more realistic portrayal of family life by choosing to instead use what is essentially a series of interconnected vignettes. Each of the girls faces different issues in their lives, typically resulting around love or work, some are returned to and resolved and others are not as they do not need to be.
The film plays a magical spell as you watch it, drawing you into the lives of four young women who are each dealing with the grief of a departed parent in different ways. All four girls are fully sketched out and wonderfully characterised by both positive and negative traits, each as charming at the movie itself. How the story is shown is as extraordinary as it is told, finding beauty in even the smallest of moments – such as the way a plum floats in a jar of plum wine – and within the landscape itself – with the ‘tunnel’ of cherry blossoms being a personal favourite.
Few family-based dramas whisper instead of shout. This is one of them. A film that is quietly powerful and immensely appealing.