Japan’s Our Little Sister is a conflict-free confection

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      Starring Suzu Hirose. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Rated G

      Writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda made his reputation by toggling effortlessly between mellow magic realism (After Life, Maborosi) and biting social commentary (Distance, Nobody Knows).

      These interests blend beautifully in Our Little Sister, bittersweet Japanese naturalism based on Akimi Yoshida’s serialized manga Umimachi Diary.

      The story is as simple as both titles (umimachi means “seaside town”), detailing the gradual adjustments of the wonderfully appealing Kôda sisters—ranging in age from 20 to not quite 30—to a sibling they barely knew they had. After the death of an estranged father whom she calls “kind, but useless”, eldest daughter Sachi (Haruka Ayase) travels with trouble-prone Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa, the teacher from I Wish) and goofy, carefree Chika (Kaho) to his funeral in a faraway town.

      There, they meet 15-year-old Suzu (adorable newcomer Suzu Hirose) in her manga-esque school uniform. She’s their dad’s child with his second wife, who died earlier, leaving the orphaned Suzu with another family that doesn’t care much about her.

      Since their own mother took off when the first marriage tanked, the levelheaded Sachi essentially raised the other girls while nursing at a small hospital. She impulsively asks Suzu to come live with them in coastal Kamakura, where they share the kind of big, ramshackle house that haunts nostalgic anime efforts like Only Yesterday and When Marnie Was Here. They all agree, enthusiastically.

      Viewers expecting dramatic conflict to arise from this development may be surprised to find that you can make a superb, two-hour movie about people being kind to each other. But even after being warmly welcomed by her new school (what?), budding soccer star Suzu still has kinks to work out from her roustabout childhood.

      And the others know they can’t live this idyll forever. That’s drama enough.

      Often compared with Yasujirō Ozu’s domestic tales, Koreeda’s films share that Chekhovian vibe, but his movies have more cinematic fluidity and highly tactile surfaces; he makes you feel things you might otherwise forget.