By David Yamaguchi
The North American Post
Perhaps every twenty years or so, a Japanese film comes along that touches hearts internationally. Two decades back, it was “Shall We Dance?,” a 1996 film that captures the male angst of taking dance classes so well that Americans had to copy it with their own adaptation featuring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez.
I believe that the ne“Our Little Sister,” aka “Umimachi [Sea-town] Diary,” will fare as well. It made the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). More recently, It has been reviewed in the New York Times, in the Seattle Times, and widely elsewhere.
The story opens on three twenty-something sisters discussing who will attend their estranged father’s funeral in rural Yamagata-ken. He had abandoned the three and their mother 15 years earlier, for an affair. Later, their overwhelmed mother had also left, leaving the three to fend for themselves from their grandmother’s old, quaint, home.
All three daughters end up attending the funeral, and it is a good thing, for there they meet the fourteen-year old half-sister that they had not known that they had. Finding the young girl charming and mature beyond her years—as well as adrift from living with the unrelated third wife of their father—the eldest (A-list actress Haruka Ayase) asks the girl if she would like to come live with them in Kamakura.
I’ll leave the rest of the story to the reader. On one level, in the words of one of my friends, it is a typical “slow-moving Japanese movie where nothing really happens.”
On a deeper level, the film hits the nail on the head in its rendering of the human condition. It sweetly captures how life paths can be altered in an instant. It reveals the healing bonds of family, friendship, and community. We see how imperfect lives can be made better.
As this is a Japanese movie, the changing seasons are accompanied with the cooking and eating of seasonal, regional food and drink, seemingly in every other scene. New dishes to me included shirasu (whitebait), and homemade plum wine, the latter of which I am now tempted to try making.
A side benefit for Japanese language students is that nearly all conversations in the film are at the informal “home conversation” level, without the hard-to-know jargon of sci-fi, detective, or other genres. Like being in grandma’s kitchen, the words are comfortable and familiar.
With luck, when you read this, “Our Little Sister” will still be showing daily at 4:20, 7, and 9:40 p.m. at the Seven Gables Theater (Roosevelt at NE 50th). As this is an old theater, be aware that the gravel parking lot has only a half-dozen spaces; others need to find street parking. Note also that there is an unavoidable flight of stairs at the entrance. Similarly, accessing the restrooms requires being able to climb and descend a staircase.
Inconveniences aside, perhaps your experience in watching the film will be the same as that of Japanese ladies I overheard talking in the lobby between showings.
“Ima nikai me,” one said to her companion. I am going in for a second viewing.
“Sankai me,” pitched in another, walking in. She was on her third viewing.