Sachi (Haruka Ayase) is a nurse at a hospital just outside of Tokyo; Yoshino (Masami Magasawa) is a bank clerk; Chika (fashion model Kaho), just out of high school, works at a Foot Locker-ish shoe store. All three sisters have been on their own since Dad got hitched to another woman years ago — don't even ask about Mom — with Sachi acting as a de facto den mother, raising her younger siblings in the family house. When news of their father's passing reaches the trio, the eldest bitterly dispatches the other two to go without her. Yet Sachi eventually does show up, at which point she encounters Asano (Suzu Hirose) — the 14-year-old half-sister none of them had ever met. On a whim, the alpha female invites the adolescent to come live with them. Reluctantly, the kid accepts.
That's about it for plot in Hirokazu Koreeda's adaptation of Akimi Yoshida's serialized manga Umimachi Diary, which focuses the rest of its running time detailing the foursome's daily rhythms and the occasional obstacle thrown in their way. Asano becomes the school's soccer superstar. Sachi gets a potential offer to practice medicine abroad. Romantic entanglements come and go. A flaky matriarch and a few non-family members — an elderly woman who runs the ladies' favorite diner, Chika's goofy boho-hipster best friend — drift into their periphery, and slowly eddy out again. Nothing cataclysmic happens. Nothing much happens at all, except life, the passage of time and the slow hardening of the glue that holds these four young women together.
It's the way that Koreeda handles such quotidian details and detours of this quartet that makes all the difference, and Our Little Sister the sort of incredibly rich, rewarding moviegoing experience that makes you feel like your molecules have been rearranged as you leave the theater. One of Japan's more prestigious modern directors — Sister scored a record amount of nominations at the country's equivalent to the Oscars last January — the filmmaker has specialized in the spiritual (1998's After Life), the torn-from-the-headlines stark (2001's Aum Shinrikyo-like cult drama Distance; 2004's Nobody Knows) and the existentially surreal (2009's sex-doll-come-to-life parable Air Doll).
But for the last few years, the director has settled into making the type of tender hōmu doramas that were Yasujiro Ozu's stock in trade, complete with the latter's signature train shots and floor-level people-sitting-on-tatami-mat shots. If Koreeda isn't exactly the master's heir, he's certainly perfected the art of the glancing character study, and Our Little Sister is rife with the atmospherics and attention to telling little shifts that mark all of his best work. He's the kind of filmmaker who will stage a seaside fireworks scene and then favor the spectacle's colorful reflections off the water and observers' faces, or linger on a person walking through a landscape for effect — a practitioner of grace notes rather than grand, all-caps statements.
And the man knows how to collaborate with actors: It's impossible to single out any of the main turns here because, in the hands of these females, their individual roles seem to morph into one multi-stranded, four-sided performance. The effect is less like watching a cast trade lines than seeing a band listen to each other and lock into a groove — the give-and-take between these actresses is that seamless, and that essential to the spell the film conjures. By the time the movie ends with a stroll on the beach, the sensation that you know these women is palpable. You can take Our Little Sister as a foreign-film antidote to summer blockbuster bombast, an arthouse salve, or simply a cinematic chamber piece set to the key of kin-based connection. Just see it.