our little sister is the most honest, beautiful and poetic portrayal of sisterhood you will ever see
Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda discusses his new film, Our Little Sister.
The thought of watching a film about four sisters dealing with the death of their father might fill you with dread. Why should I watch such depressing drivel, you ask yourself. But you needn't. You're in the hands of Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda, a master of cushioning sadness with comedy, of following a funeral scene with one about the joys of eating fresh whitebait. The result - Our Little Sister, based on the graphic novel Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida- is a quietly heartwarming coming-of-ager about what happens when estranged sisters reunite under morbid circumstances, how they live together, how they get on. As Koreeda so eloquently puts it: "It's about the aftermath of the storm as opposed to the storm itself."
Koreeda knows exactly when and how to make tears roll down your cheeks. Yet those tears are never cheap, your heartstrings never yanked insincerely. His films -- Still Walking and Nobody Knows among them -- are sentimental without being syrupy. With Our Little Sister it's much the same. You get that conflicted happy/sad feeling that's more uplifting than downbeat. In other words, he's one of those rare filmmakers who has the power to make you call your sister or your brother once the curtains close. If that doesn't sound grossly corny.
When I met Koreeda during the London Film Festival last year he was with his translator. Meaning it wasn't always easy for us to fully express our thoughts, to read between the lines. He makes hmm sounds as his translator relays my questions; he nods patiently while the translator communicates his answer in English. Despite this, he sounded 100% passionate when we talked about the cast-iron bond between sisters, the small details that breath life into a story, and the unexpected influence of Little Women.
Our Little Sister comes from the manga series Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida. Is the film wildly different from the comic?
Basically all the characters are the same. I haven't changed them. However, there are some scenes that aren't in the original comic that I put in the film.
So, tonally, how would you say they differ?
It's hard to describe the tone of the film versus the comic. The original is a lot more about, not just the four sisters, but the people around them. It's a story about what happened in the town before the sisters and what happened after they leave. So the comic takes a wider view of the town's story, and I tried to respect that tone, even though I ultimately did my own thing with it.
I was amazed how perceptive the film was; the dynamic between the sisters feels keenly observed, as if from lived experience. Did you grow up with sisters?
I do have two older sisters but I didn't really use my own experience. I did research. I interviewed five sets of three sisters and talked to them about what they were like together, when they fought what did they fight about, what did they eat together, what did they talk about, when they took a bath who went first, all sorts of small details. So that helped. And then I filled in the gaps left in the comic based on those interviews.
How do you think that bond between sisters is different from the bond between brothers?
It's a tough one. The sisters in this film are in a special situation because they don't have parents, so the eldest daughter sometimes has to be a mother and a father. So I think that makes it slightly different.
The sisters have amazing chemistry. You must have searched far and wide to find girls who just clicked together in that way?
[Laughs] Yes, I had to be very careful and it took a long time. I knew that the chemistry was key, the four sisters getting on in a certain way. I was very particular about it. And then, before filming began, we spent a long time in the wonderful big house that we rented for the film. That was in order to determine how the sisters would work in the garden, who's going to be sitting closest to the kitchen when they're in the veranda, how would they sit together, who would be where. And so we spent a long time figuring out the dynamic between them in that way.
Almost all your films feature young actors or kids, and it always seems like you get the best out of them. As a filmmaker do you see yourself as telling the story from their perspective, getting inside their minds?
You could say that the film is from Suzu's point of view but I thought - and maybe I realized this half way through making the film - that my point of view as a filmmaker was more like the father's, the dead father, looking over the four sisters. I realized that the camera is more like the father trying to look after them and trying to make sure that they're okay and celebrating their life from his point of view.
The film begins and ends with a funeral, yet it's not downbeat at all. Were the laughs and the comedy about softening the sadness in this case?
Yes, absolutely. It's sad but they also carry on eating, they carry on living. Even the funerals aren't about the sadness or symbolising the end. The first funeral is when the older sisters meet their new sister, so it's a beginning, and then the funeral at the end symbolises that life goes on, it's a continuation of life, looking forward.
It strikes me that if Hollywood made the same story, it would have turned out very corny and dramatic.
It could be very dramatic. There was so much potential to handle certain scenes dramatically -- like when the new sister comes, maybe another sister bullies her, or maybe the new sister could be nasty too. But what I saw in the original -- which was more interesting to me as a filmmaker -- was that the big storm within the youngest daughter had blown over. The remnants and reminders of that storm pop up here and there, but it was always the aftermath of that storm as opposed to the storm itself. That was more interesting to me.
Speaking of Hollywood, the film's portrayal of sisterhood did make me think of Hannah and Her Sisters and Mystic Pizza. Were they in your mind, or any other films?
I've seen those films, yes, but what I was more aware of was the four sisters in Little Women. So that's another one where the father is absent. The difference is, they're waiting for the return of the father in Little Women, whereas in my film the father has gone for good. So maybe this is a modern version of Little Women.
Text Oliver Lunn