Jars of fermenting plums are the most enduring image from Hirokazu Koreeda’s intimate family story Our Little Sister. When making plum wine, you must puncture the skin of the fruit to release its flavor, and the wine may be sweet or bitter, light or heavy, depending on what ingredients you add and how long the mixture sits. Like this wine, each of the three Koda sisters has grown tart and sweet in her own way. They live in Kamakura, Japan, in a house left to them by their grandmother after the breakup of their parents’ marriage. When a phone call informs them of their father’s passing, they journey to the remote northern town where he spent his last years and confront family history they’ve relegated to a dark corner of their minds as if it were a dusty and forgotten jar.
At the funeral the Koda sisters meet their 14-year-old half sister, Suzu (Suzu Hirose), daughter of the woman who broke up their own family. As they’re about to return home, the eldest sister, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), impulsively invites Suzu to come live with them. The three Kodas—stern, motherly Sachi; romantic, irresponsible Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa); and whimsical, childlike Chika (Kaho)—have been living in a familiar but melancholy stasis. Suzu forces them to reexamine their lives and alter their behavior patterns, just as a new ingredient will irrevocably alter the flavor of a wine.
Koreeda allows the action to unfold gradually, and plum wine isn’t the only food metaphor enriching his tale. Each meal seems like an invitation for the sisters to learn more about each other or to be reminded—for good or ill—of their parents. Sachi resents her father for having abandoned them, whereas their guest, Suzu, feels guilty for being the embodiment of his infidelity. Each hides a festering sore from childhood, but once they piece together the events of the preceding years, their fragmented family begins to seem whole.
The movie’s only false note is Koreeda’s repeated use of swelling strings and schmaltzy piano to underscore the more touching moments; the storytelling and the performances are subtle and dignified, yet the soundtrack is trite and grating. Because Koreeda trusts the viewer to draw his own conclusions about the sisters in every other way, it’s puzzling that he would fall back on a cheap, emotionally manipulative score. But the strings and ivories eventually fade, which allows the sisters’ story to fill the room like the fragrances of opened jars. v