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Review: “Our Little Sister” is masterfully poetic; latest Herzog doc hits disconnect

Haruka Ayase (left) as Sachi and Suzu Hirose as her half-sister Suzu.
Haruka Ayase (left) as Sachi and Suzu Hirose as her half-sister Suzu.

I wish I could tell you how Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda creates his particular magic — how he manages to surprise and move us, even when it looks like he’s not doing much at all.

If you asked me, years after seeing them, I couldn’t tell you some of the specifics of plot in Afterlife, Nobody Knows, I Wish, Still Walking or Like Father, Like Son. But I remember the feeling, the extraordinary and simple craft of the director’s work, and the deep, world-wise humanity that underscores each of his films.

The works of the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov come to mind. Kore-eda’s new film, Our Little Sister, could just as easily be called Three Sisters (and a Half). 

The three are Sachi (Haruka Ayase), the eldest, a stern and efficient nurse; Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), who works in a bank and has a weakness for irresponsible, underemployed men and alcohol; and Chika (Kaho), the wide-eyed youngest who works in a sportswear shop and doesn’t remember much of the parental drama her siblings witnessed.

We learn about this piecemeal as the sisters travel, reluctantly, to the countryside for the funeral of their estranged father. They hadn’t seen him in 15 years. He left their mom for another woman, who later died, and married one more time after that. The sisters meet the widow, but more importantly they learn for the first time that their dad had a child with the woman who broke up their parents: 13-year-old Suzu (Suzu Hirose), a solemn, polite youngster who greets them at the train station dressed in a sailor suit.

It comes as a bit of a surprise not only to Suzu but to the other sisters when Sachi invites the girl to leave the countryside, and the custody of her indifferent stepmother, and join them in Kamakura. That’s the larger seaside town where the sisters live in a rambling old home that once belonged to their grandmother.

Our Little Sister then unfolds very gently over the next couple of years. It follows Suzu’s adjustment to her new school and attention from boys, and likewise the older sisters’ interactions with the men in their lives.

We come to feel we know and understand these young women, and to sympathize with them as they seek to make the right choices in life … sometimes to their own detriment. These are women who have had to figure out on their own what it means to grow up, following desertion of different kinds — first by their father, then their mother. A similar legacy has now been passed down to Suzu. We gradually understand that Suzu fears that her half sisters secretly blame her for the breakup of their own parents’ marriage. We watch Sachi come to terms with her own actions in dating a married man, and Yoshino inch her way toward behaving more responsibly.

Kore-eda is always a forgiving writer-director, which is not the same thing as sentimental. If you’ve seen any of his films, you relax, knowing that under his empathetic gaze, even the three sisters’ own flighty, unreliable mother — who makes an appearance late in the film and threatens to detonate her children’s lives — is within reach of redemption.

As in Kore-eda’s other films, Sister is attuned to the beauties and yearly mileposts of nature, whether it’s by celebrating a big haul of whitebait from the bay, or reveling in the snowy glory of a lane lined with cherry trees in bloom. The movie celebrates life, but with the shadow of death drifting at the edges. (Sachi gets promoted to run a new terminal care facility at her hospital, and it’s not a random plot point.)

I won’t say more about what happens in Our Little Sister, because not very much and actually a whole lot does. This is the sort of movie you live and breathe in. And want to take your siblings to see.

Also opening is the latest documentary from Werner Herzog, who took us into the red-toothed wild (Grizzly Man), down to the weird Antarctic (Encounters at the End of the World) and into the painted visions of our ancestors (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). With Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, he tries to make sense of realities, possibilities and dangers of the post-wifi world.

I’d follow Herzog anywhere in his films. This is the first time, though, that I wasn’t glad I’d gone on the journey. The film’s title comes from the first successful computer-to-computer communication, from a device in UCLA to another at Stanford in 1969. The initial word was meant to be “login,” but the system crashed on the “g.” Ergo, the first internet exchange was the word “lo.”

Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog

Herzog’s film starts with UCLA computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock explaining this history. But before we can get our bearings, we launch into the next of the movie’s ten separate chapters. That’s a lot of chapters for something barely longer than 90 minutes.

A lot of stuff gets touched on here: “biomolecule folding” and group-sourcing RNA research; the trolling abuse of the Net by people posting horrific postmortem photos of a family’s loved one; a visit to an isolated West Virginia commune, where people claim to be deathly allergic to internet signals; the threat of sunspots that could wipe out our electrical grid and plunge the planet into a new dark age; the possibilities of AI; and the viability of commercial travel to Mars (Elon Musk is a featured talking head).

What do all these things have in common? Not much besides the murmuring prelude to Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, played on the soundtrack throughout. For once, it feels as if Werner Herzog’s restless mind has outstripped his ability to organize or bring unity to the many topics he pursues.

Our Little Sister. With Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose. Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. In Japanese with subtitles. Rated PG. 128 minutes. At the Tara.

Lo and Behold. Reveries of the Connected World. A documentary by Werner Herzog. Rated PG-13. 98 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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