“A tender nostalgic narrative about the nature of sisterly relations and the beauty of transiency”.
In the seaside city of Kamakura near Tokyo, three sisters, 29-year-old Sachi Kouda (Haruka Ayase), 22-year-old Yoshino Kouda (Masami Nagasawa) and 19-year-old Chika Kouda (Kaho), live together. Sachi, a nurse at a local hospital, has been a stand-in mother ever since their mother (Shinobu Ohtake) moved away and their grandmother died.
One day, they receive the message that their father, who left their mother for another woman, has died in a distant province. They decide to attend his funeral. At the funeral they meet Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose), their 14 year-old stepsister.
As Suzu’s own mother has already died and she doesn’t really get along with her step-mother, she gladly accepts Sachi’s invitation to come to live with them in Kamakura.
The narrative’s main focus concerns ‘interactions and relations’ and should be seen as detailed study on how time influences the nature of subsequent interactions as well as the nature of the relations that’re function of those interactions. For instance, Yuzu has to find her own place in relation to each sister and each sister has to take Yuzu into account as sister. The latter is easily observed for instance when Chika as well as Yoshino ask Yuzu to address them in a specific way, preferring informality instead of the formality governed by Japanese honorifics. As Yuzu is introduced into the past and the present of her new sisters, the house, and other family members, it’s nevertheless apparent that the differential memories each sister has, concerning the father and the lack of place to talk about that which binds them, are not without having an effect on their interactions/relations.
Umimachi Diary‘s focus on relations and interactions and, subsequently, bonding is also evident from the way the narrative is structured. The narrative is presented as a selection, a collage of events that happen in a specific span of time, underlining the transiency of nature masterly, e.g. cherry blossoms, making Umeshu. Kore-eda analyzes how these events influences the relations between Yuzu and each sister, while at the same time elaborating on each sister’s personality and their relations to one another. This focus means that Umimachi Diary is fundamentally a character driven narrative. And it in this respect that it’s important to underline the fabulous acting of the four actresses (Haruka Ayasa, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose) portraying the sisters.
In essence Umimachi diary concerns nothing other than the beauty of transiency, a transiency that’s ever framed against a background of permanency. The importance of this aspect of permanence is underlined by Kore-eda when he says that the true main characters are not the sisters, but the town and the old house, precisely because they are witnesses of the past. In other words, they form the permanent backdrop, where the transiency of human beings and their interactions is played out. A transiency that nevertheless, through signifiers (e.g. memories, cultural practices, family traditions) influences the characters and their interactions in the present. One could even argue, as the structure of umimachi diary implies, that the narrative is meant to be experienced as something that has already (become the) past; experienced as nothing other than memories. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the narrative evokes a feeling of tender nostalgia, a feeling underpinned by the appreciation of the beauty of transiency.
The honest and touching nature of the narrative is first and foremost realized by way of Kore-eda’s cinematography, which excels in its simplicity. Scenes are solely staged with ‘longer’ fixed shots and, in some instances, slow (horizontal) panning camera shots. The only exception to Kore-Eda’s cinematographical rule is the opening shot of the cherry blossom scene with Futa and Yuzu, where an overhead vertical camera is used to underline the movement of the bicycle.
This slow and simple way of staging the narrative enables Kore-eda to masterly put the emphasis on the personalities of the sisters and the interactions between them. Every scene features genuine interactions, mainly because the cinematography – quite often via establishing shots – creates the necessary space for significant, but often small gestures and expressions to flourish. In this respect, we are once again obliged to underline the magnificent acting performances of the four actresses portraying the sisters, because the genuineness of the interactions captured by the simple cinematographical focus is almost solely function of those individual performances.
Another aspect that is important in evoking the nostalgic feeling, the appreciative feeling of the beauty of transiency we’ve mentioned before, is the music. At every important moment in the narrative the music is there to underline the beauty of the moment itself and, in the same vein, its transient nature. But we could also say, in line with our previous hypothesis, that the music conjugated the entire narrative in the past tense. In other words: in part, it’s the wonderful music that infuses the genuine interactions of the sisters with the sense of nostalgia.
Umimachi dairy is a wonderful and nostalgic cinematographical product about sisterly relations. The simple cinematographical approach together with the wonderful and touching acting performances of each main character (i.e. the sisters) creates an ensemble that’s solely about the pure capturing of interactions and emotions. The collage of scenes of daily life feel ever genuineness and time and time again reveal the beauty of simplicity and everydayness; the music vividly underlining the inherent transient nature of it all.
To conclude we feel that Kore-eda’s approach to Umimachi diary is indebted to various elements of Japanese Aesthetics: wabi-sabi and Mono no aware in particular. In our view, it’s only because these Japanese Aesthetic elements guide the staging of the narrative that Kore-eda is able to establish himself as a master in capturing interactions naturally and elaborating on relations.