Japanese Director Hirokazu Kore-eda has been an examiner of how relationships are formed even from the smallest everyday events around us for the last twenty years. Our Little Sister is not a film that follows traditional plot structures; in fact, the most significant moments in the movie take place in the first twenty minutes of the movie when three characters, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho), decide to adopt their step sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose). But this sets the rest of the movie to capture the unassuming yet delicate everyday family lives of the four characters in the seaside town of Kamakura over four seasons. The audience follows the slow, “normal” lives of characters having small talk with each other, having food together, trying to find romantic relationships, or even just giving gripes from their job or school. While uneventful, for a director who dedicates his films to depict the delicateness of human life, the setting creates the perfect physical domain for Kore-eda’s signature quintessential examination of family relationships. In his more optimistic film, Kore-eda, once again, tells his audience the beauty of the small things that we have around us, effectively depicting character relationships between characters and settings through his unique documentary-like cinematography.
With the film being centered around character relationships, dialogue is one of the biggest pulling forces for the narrative in Our Little Sister. The main way that Kore-eda depicts dialogue scenes is through shot/reverse shot — a common method in film to show dialogue. However, unlike most films that use the shot/reverse shot simply as a measure to effectively present a dialogue scene, Kore-eda artistically adds meaning towards each cuts and angles within the shot/reverse shot to portray the status of relationship between characters.
Scene 1: Sachi and Fumiyo’s conversation about Suzu
Take scene 1 above and scene 2 below for example. Both are scenes from Our Little Sister that happen in the same location. However, the context of both conversations is starkly different. Immediately in the establishing shot of the conversations, Kore-eda sets up the mood of each scene. In scene 1 above, Sachi and her great aunt Fumiyo have an argument about adopting Suzu. Here, the camera is placed on the garden outside, facing inwards towards the house. By doing this, Kore-eda is able to naturally create a more grim background to represent the pessimistic nature of Fumiyo’s opinion on Suzu using the dark colors of the furniture inside the room.
Scene 2: Conversation between Suzu and Chika about their father
On the other hand, in scene 2, the dialogue is centered around the two characters, Suzu and Chika understanding each other by talking about their now dead father. In this scene, the two characters are talking about something they share, reminiscing in a positive manner. Unlike scene 1 which happens in the same location, Kore-eda places the camera inside the room facing towards the garden. This gives the conversation a bright atmosphere through the lively green color of the garden and the bright light shining towards them.
Most importantly, however, during the conversation, the fact that dialogue centers around arguments and understandings of each other drastically changes the presentation of the shot/reverse shot. In scene 1, because the two characters are unable to come to a consensus, Kore-eda places emphasis on the back of the character that is listening using over the shoulder shots. Rather than having the speaker be of focus, Kore-eda makes the listener’s back take around half of the medium shot that he is using for the over the shoulder shot. This visually indicates to the audience that the two characters are unwilling to listen to each other. Similarly, most of the facial parts that the audience gets of the speaker is rotated slightly away from the camera, once again, indicating the distance within the conversation. On the other hand, in scene 2, Kore-eda places the focus of the over the shoulder shots on the face of the speaker. With the characters trying to understand each other, the majority of the conversation features Suzu and Chika facing directly towards the camera, allowing the audience to fully capture the expressions of the characters. This directly signals to the audience that the two characters are being open with each other during this conversation unlike scene 1.
Scene 3: Sachi and Suzu’s conversation about their family
This type of presentation within shot/reverse shots for conversations carries on throughout the film. Even when conversations are more casual, not specifically to understand each other or to have arguments, Kore-eda uses this to present how the characters feel about each other. An example of this above is from the middle of the movie when Suzu and Sachi are having a conversation about their family. While it is not specifically explicit in their dialogue, while Sachi is welcoming Suzu, she feels slightly uncomfortable about Suzu being the daughter of her father’s affair. At the same time, Suzu feels discomfort about the fact that it was her mother that “ruined” Sachi’s family. This discomfort that is addressed slowly throughout the movie is foreshadowed by having the camera of the shot/reverse shot behind the characters. This achieves a similar mood to the audience from scene 1 where the audience visually sees that the two characters are disconnected from each other as the shots primarily focus on their backs and profiles of their face. Even without explicit mention about how they are feeling about their relationship within the dialogue, Kore-eda is able to visually connect to the audience that the two characters are disconnected. Through blocking that has characters either slightly angled towards or against the camera during their conversations, Kore-eda is able to make regular over the shoulder shots during dialogue like this to artistic representations of relationship status.
However, even outside of conversations, Kore-eda uses his placement of the camera and the line of sight of characters to portray relationships. One central idea throughout Kore-eda’s film is that a family is not connected by blood, but rather the relationships and experiences formed together that bond people even stronger. To emphasize the idea that the four characters become a “real” family throughout their experiences together in Kamakura, Koreeda features a lot of long shots and medium long shots that capture all four characters looking in the same direction. These are shots that happen for extended lengths emphasized before cuts happen.
Scene 4 & 5: The four characters gather after different events
Above are two examples of a shot from the middle of the movie as Suzu begins to fit into the house, understanding the different personalities and events that happen daily. With both of these scenes, it is possible to see that Kore-eda creates a natural frame within a frame through either the windows or the sliding doors. The frame within a frame establishes two important features for the audience. First, this technique naturally guides the audience towards the characters. In a movie where not many fast cuts or stimulating frames consistently appear, it is important to find ways to keep the audience’s eyes attached to the screen. By adding elements such as a frame within a frame, Kore-eda is able to create visually interesting frames to keep the audience’s attention towards the actions and expressions of the characters rather than the background. Secondly, this establishes a contextual connection of the characters. By placing them within the frame within a frame closely together, it visually shows the audience how close the characters are together; nothing separates the characters visually within the frame.
One integral part to note with these types of shots happening throughout the movie is that despite using long shots, Kore-eda makes sure that his characters are facing towards the camera. Similar to the shots used in dialogue, Kore-eda represents connection between characters by making the frontal view of the face visible to the audience. From this, Kore-eda once again emphasizes how the characters are open towards each other.
Interestingly, these shots do not happen after important climatic events. Rather they come after scenes that may be considered insignificant like trying homemade alcohol or picking fruits together. But it is these smaller events that Kore-eda emphasizes in his movie. Through these images that emphasize that the four characters have become a close family, Kore-eda tells the audience that relationships are not built and changed with one experience; the accumulation of the small string of various events create even thicker, stronger bonds that do not break.
Scene 6 & 7: Long shots showcasing the town
What makes these shot choices stand out, however, is not the images themselves; the atmosphere of the relaxing daily life that is set throughout the movie is what is at the core of what gives the movie its message. Throughout the film, Kore-eda and his cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto subtly capture the beauty of timelessness of the character’s surroundings through shot-choices that depict the relationship between the characters and the town as one that fuses together to give life; the film captures moments of reality better than any other. One signature shot from the formerly documentary producing director is the long shots that happen throughout extended frame lengths. An example of this are the two shots above which happen in the start and middle of the movies respectively.
With the theme of the movie centering around the character’s daily lives in the town of Kamakura, it is arguable to say that one of the most prominent actors to the movie is the town itself. By using long shots as seen on scene 6 and scene 7, Kore-eda minimizes the characters in order to give more weight towards the landscape surrounding the characters. Within these long shots, one important part to note is that the color palettes that Kore-eda uses are of very low saturation. While this allows the audience to feel less stress when viewing bright landscape shots like above, more importantly, this allows the characters to blend more easily with the background. By specifically having his long shots be presented in this lowly saturated tone, Kore-eda naturally presents to the audience the beauty of the seemingly normal town while depicting how important the town is to the context of the character’s relationships. By having the background fuse with the characters, Kore-eda captures the town of Kamakura as realistically as possible.
In order to add on to this calmness and reality, Kore-eda delicately uses lateral pans. Like with the low saturation, in this film, Kore-eda never stresses certain aspects about the town; for Kore-eda, even the everyday town that the characters see without any special decoration is something the audience can find beauty in and appreciate. Because of this, the camera movements that Kore-eda chooses strays away from high tension. One of the most frequently appearing shots in the film are master shots that do not cut to other cameras for extended periods of time. Here, in order to make the scene feel natural without dragging, Kore-eda slightly moves his camera from right to left as conversations carry through. By doing this, the movie allows the audience to slowly absorb everything from the objects in the house and the city to the slight changes in expression by the characters. Furthermore, Kore-eda emphasizes this through the frequent lack of soundtracks in different scenes. Rather than instruments, what fills the audio are the sound of spoons clashing with dishes while eating, doors sliding open, subways moving, dialogue between characters, and the sound of cicadas loudly chirping in the middle of summer. By mixing the slow lateral pan and the sound of nature that fill the audio, Kore-eda makes Our Little Sister a documentary portrayal of the lives of Sachi, Yoshino, Chika, and Suzu — not a fictional story of characters reduced to romance or drama.
Kore-eda’s film isn’t the normal story of a character overcoming hardships. Our Little Sister is a carefully and delicately presented realistic story of the small events that make up the lives of four normal yet unique characters. Throughout the film, there is always an air of lightness that guides us through the various small joys and sadnesses of the characters. Our Little Sister is the perfect portrayal of what Kore-eda has been doing for the last twenty years, addressing the tightest unit of relationship — a family — and how this unit does not have to be formed by blood. Through the presentation of these characters using his signature shot selection and cinematographic elements, Kore-eda tells his audience to think about the various relationships that we have formed — to look back at even the smallest moments that allowed us to have strong bonds with the ones that we care about the most.