It turns out dullness can ransack even the loveliest and gentlest of stories. Take, say, Our Little Sister, which plays at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque this weekend. It's a small-scale domestic drama from director Hirokazu Koreeda that captures, in its quotidian way, the beauties and pleasures and hurdles and horrors of life for three sisters and their adopted half-sister in Japan.
It is elegant and oh-so serene, rather akin to the lapping waves on the beach where the Koda sisters are wont to stroll and reminisce. Yes, to watch Our Little Sister is to experience the recurring delight of little lapping waves, waves that might not have the gale-force velocity or awesome altitude of the foam-crested suckers of tsunami season (a metaphor for the big-budget franchise onslaught during summer's dog days), but which are pleasing and meditative in their cumulative effect.
At least for the first 85 minutes or so. After that, to extend the analogy, the little burps and splats of all these lapping waves become maddening. Your feet in the sand become pruny and cold. It begins to rain, and the waves' interminable advance is now a sick sort of torture, a literal water torture from which there appears to be no escape or end.
Like Return of the King before it, Our Little Sister is distinguished, among other things, by the quantity of its endings. With a running time of two hours and eight minutes (but which feels more like eight hours and two minutes), the film conspires to tie a bow on the storylines of every character and minor conflict lately introduced.
Egalitarian to a fault, the movie roves among the freighted relationships of each of the three Koda sisters — Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho) — and their warm individual sisterly/motherly stewardships of young Suzo (Suzo Hirose), whom they invite to live with them after the funeral that opens the film.
Within all of these relationships are moments of absolute serenity, total gentleness and everyday beauty: the family's yearly ritual of making plum wine; the late-night coming together for sparklers after a city-wide celebration; Suzo's delight as she tries a new dish at the local diner; Suzo's ecstasy as she bicycles through the cherry blossoms, etc. It's all very sweet — in fact, more than once you'll no doubt aww and murmur appreciatively, "That is so sweet!" — but it's all, to an almost unendurable degree, low key.
If Little Women was suffused with melodrama, Our Little Sister is pretty much sucked of it. There is sadness to be sure, somberness aplenty, but little of it arrives with the narrative benefit of dramatic tension. That's part of the reason why everything feels like an ending in the movie's second half. It's all been so serenely humdrum that you're not aware of the story's natural arc.
Our Little Sister's ultimate dullness, then, emerges not in spite of its loveliness; it is generated by its loveliness. But make no mistake. Before the dullness and the fury set in (and maybe even after), you'll find sweetness and serenity galore.