Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's lovingly crafted small-scale family drama is full of characters you won't want to leave behind

If you could trust any director to tell a two-hour family story with a bare minimum of dramatic conflict and still make it sing, it’s Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan’s modern master of domestic observation, who has invested his new film with a tantalisingly Chekhov-like sensibility.

Our Little Sister is full of quiet joy and simple pleasures, the taste of fresh whitebait over rice and plum wine steeped lovingly for a decade. Precisely because it’s less emotionally coercive than Kore-eda’s last couple of pictures, it’s even more moving: rather than lunging full-bore for the solar plexus, the truths it’s telling creep up on you.

It’s a story about grace, kindness, and a form of rescue: that of 15-year-old Suzu (Suzu Hirose, an absolute pleasure to watch), by the three half-sisters she’s never met until their father’s funeral. Estranged from their dad after he left them for Suzu’s mother, this trio - a nurse called Sachi (Haruka Ayase), louche bank employee Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho), a goofy soul who works in a sports shop - make the trip to a provincial corner of Japan when he dies.

Not only do they meet Suzu for the first time, but also her self-absorbed stepmother, his third wife, whose ability to look after this grieving teenager is tangibly dubious from everything she says and does.

“He was both kind and hopeless,” Sachi reflects about their father, who had a habit of overlending money to the point of getting into debt himself, and falling in love with single women out of sympathy. Matching his kindness with a compassionate gesture of their own, she and the others offer to take Suzu into their rambling ancestral home in the small city of Kamakura, an hour from Tokyo.

Because their own mother left them at the time of their father’s liaison, Sachi is the de facto head of the family, and squabbles from time to time with the more free-spirited Yoshino, who is rarely without a beer in her hand or a new boyfriend even less stable than the last.

By and large, though, Suzu slots into this caring home with close to no friction at all: they have plenty of room for her, all have jobs, and she’s a considerate girl, mature beyond her years, whose main worry is what her mother did to the Koda family by stealing not one but both of their parents away.

The sadness of the film - it breaks your heart regularly, and with the softest touch - resides in this theme of stolen childhoods, and the committed efforts of these four young women to help each other survive. There are treats they give and receive, and the film gives us plenty of its own, such as a spirit-reviving cycle ride through a corridor of cherry blossom.

There are also gentle ironies in the traits this quartet have inherited from the older generation. Sachi is harshest on their father for his infidelities, but she’s the one dating a married colleague who can’t bring himself to divorce his clinically depressed wife. She’s quick to rise to anger - Ayase, imperious, gorgeous and stern, gives her a brooding maternal anxiety that’s a trifle scary - so it’s a point no one dares raise.

Kore-eda wraps us up tight in this clan’s daily lives, season following season, and very carefully weaves his way through, so that none of the film’s developments - Yoshino’s dating woes, Suzu’s first crush - feel like dramatic swerves for the sake of drama.

A visit from their mother, played with touching pain and a lot of suppressed guilt by Shinobu Otake, threatens turmoil, and a distressing row erupts when she tactlessly suggests selling the house they’ve all lived in since childhood.

But this scene’s played so credibly it’s about the other characters trying to dampen the conflict, rather than a dramatist excitedly stoking the flames. It ends up feeling more like an argument you’ve witnessed in life than one from a movie. 

All told, the patience of the filmmaking is pretty remarkable, a feat of embroidery slowly taking shape, and it inspires a corresponding faith in the willing viewer - it’s an invitation to sit back and settle in for one of Kore-eda’s loveliest films.

The source book, by the way, is a manga called Umimachi Diary, which you may want to go out and devour as soon as it’s over, almost as a way of staying in touch. It’s quite a wrench saying goodbye to this lot.