Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Hirose Suzu
The lives of the three Koda sisters; easygoing youngest Chika (Kaho), leggy office worker and middle child Yoshino (Nagasawa), and the responsible eldest sister Sachi (Ayase) are changed upon hearing that their father, who had abandoned them when they were children, has died. Going to the small town where he settled, they meet Suzu Asano (Hirose), their half sister and the daughter of the woman who had destroyed their family. Seeing that Suzu has no one to care for her, Sachi and the sisters welcome her to live with them in the beautiful seaside town of Kamakura.
Based on the manga by Akimi Yoshida of the same name, the film is also known by the international title Our Little Sister. Master director Hirokazu Koreeda helms this stunningly shot, tender, and thoroughly engaging drama that features some of the best female talent working in Japanese film and television as well as marking a star-making turn by Hirose Suzu, who has become one of the most in demand talents working in the industry today. Anchoring the film is the deeply realistic and compelling performances by Ayase, Nagasawa, and Kaho as the thoroughly believable and easily ingratiating Koda family. Their mannerisms and interactions imply a great deal of familiarity and frustration but also a good deal of love. With the introduction of Suzu to the mix, she acts as our perspective into the film and as she too becomes one with the sisters, so too are we the audience brought into the fold as seemingly additional members of the family.
Ayase deftly anchors the film as the responsibly Sachi; her personal life quietly dramatic despite her role as the surrogate mother and sister to her two much more relaxed younger sisters. Nagasawa brings a modern sensibility to the family dynamic as the worldly Yoshino whose straightforward nature can oftentimes clash with her older sister but never moves into contempt. Kaho delivers a quietly scene stealing performance as the seemingly carefree Chika; her interactions with her older sisters differing between her interactions with her new younger sister Suzu. The scenes these two share are among the most surprisingly touching moments in the film. Hirose Suzu herself delivers a truly terrific performance as the angelic and conflicted Suzu. Her uneasiness in entering a foreign household is quickly washed away as she begins to love the beautiful town of Kamakura as well as learn things about her father that she never knew, along with seeing just what traits she shares with her new older sisters. Coupled with multiple yarns about coming of age, as an individual as well as a family. Suzu’s performance is nothing short of great; it’s easy to imagine many many teenage boys falling in love with the adorable actress. The film is also rounded out with a number of Koreeda veterans including Lily Frankie, Ryo Kase, Fubuki Jun, and the always great Kirin Kiki.
Takimoto Mikiya serves as cinematographer in one of the best shot films I’ve seen in years. From nearly the first frame, the picture is filled with terrifically framed shots, lingering takes, and moments of such astounding beauty that my mind was filled with them for many days after. Yoko Kanno, one of my absolute favorite composers period, delivers a poignant and quietly appropriate score that never overshadows dialogue or physical performances but can kick in for dramatic and emotional moments when you least expect it resulting in a soundtrack that is as surprising as it is moving.
Umimachi Diary is in my opinion, one of the greatest manga/comic to film adaptations period. It’s deeply compelling take on the everyday family life of these sisters may deter some looking for a more straightforward narrative but it succeeds precisely because of that. By highlighting the slice of life nature of the manga, it brings to the fore one of my favorite themes of Japanese drama, and perhaps what Koreeda himself excels in, ‘what it is to be human.’ In fact, Umimachi Diary is the type of film that if an alien from another planet where to view, I imagine that they would think it wouldn’t be bad to be a human. Koreeda’s ability to capture the moments of joy, sadness, regret, and most of all humanity, make me truly believe that he is perhaps the best dramatic director working at this very moment. This is a movie that is not to be missed.