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Movie Review

<span class="star"><span class="web_specialcharacters">★</span> </span> <span class="star"><span class="web_specialcharacters">★</span> </span>½ | A new sibling arrives in ‘Our Little Sister’

From left: Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Haruka Ayase, and Masami Nagasawa in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Our Little Sister.”
From left: Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Haruka Ayase, and Masami Nagasawa in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Our Little Sister.”(Sony Pictures Classics)

“I wonder what I’ll remember at the end,” says Sachi (Haruka Ayase), the eldest sibling in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Our Little Sister” after one of the funerals that lugubriously pace the narrative. Her musing recalls Kore-eda’s “After Life” (1998), a post-mortem fantasy about souls in a heavenly waiting station who must choose the past moment that they want to relive through eternity. As a colleague said about this premise, I’d prefer the bullet in the back of the head, thank you very much. “Sister” also broods on the past, on how it defines the present and future, but as a film about remembering it is not especially memorable.

Sachi and her two younger sisters, Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho), meet glum, 15-year-old Suzu (Suzu Hirose), the long-lost family member of the title, at their father’s funeral. “A weak, useless man,” as Sachi describes him, their dad left their mother for another woman, who would become Suzu’s mother. Rather than leave Suzu with her negligent stepmother (their dad’s third wife — though useless, he doesn’t seem to have been idle), Sachi impulsively invites Suzu to come back to their family home. There the three sisters have their own household (a grown-up version of Kore-eda’s 2004 “Nobody Knows,” perhaps), with Sachi as bossy surrogate mother.

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Perhaps Kore-eda had Kon Ichikawa’s magnificent 1983 adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel “The Makioka Sisters” in mind while making this film. Set in the 1930s, Ichikawa’s masterpiece also follows the lives of four sisters, the eldest of whom tries to fulfill the role of the missing parents. The films share some visual motifs as well, with cherry blossoms and kimonos figuring decoratively and metaphorically.

In contrast to the overripe color in Ichikawa’s film, the blossoms in “Our Little Sister” are fading on the trees or lying dead on the beach, and the robes are subdued and monochromatic. Unlike the Makioka sisters, this quartet lack ambiguity and mystery. They overanalyze their unexceptional lives and ruminate on childhood reminiscences (abetted by frequent Proustian eating scenes). They see how the pattern of their disappointments repeats those of their parents, yet they are unable to extricate themselves. They are trapped by the past, by both its joyful and traumatizing moments, and are fit candidates for the paradise of “After Life.”

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★ ★ ½
OUR LITTLE SISTER

Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, based on Akimi Yoshida’s graphic novel “Umimachi Diary.” Starring Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, and Suzu Hirose. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 126 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements and brief language). In Japanese, with subtitles.


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.