Chizuko's Younger Sister
Director: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi
Year: 1991
Rating: 6.5

Aka  - Futari (Pair)
There were moments in this 150 minute fantasy melodrama that I wondered if it would ever end. It took me two days to finish it up. It is slow going, episodic, often leaving a scene before it feels complete, as low key as a lazy dream and verges on being a Japanese TV soap opera - but almost unnoticed is that it keeps gaining emotional weight and by the end you feel exhausted. And glad you made it. Glad you stuck with it. It has no narrative drive through as the story shifts around and hugs sub-plots only to let them go - and hits these pure emotional moments in a way that only the Japanese are not ashamed to do. Based on a story from  Jirō Akagawa, a prolific writer and also credited for Sailor Suit and Machine Gun and a series of mysteries called the Calico Cat Holmes mysteries.

It is directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, once again delving into the world of teenage girls. He does this a lot though whether because these films always did well at the box office or he just liked working with them I can't say. Nobuhiko who died earlier this year (2020) was active from his feature debut House in 1977 till last year in 2019. In his varied films (about 50 of them) he is mainly known to the West for his fantasy works beginning with House, the story of girls in a furniture eating house, through the 80's and 90's when he directed films like The Aimed School, The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, The Drifting Classroom, Samurai Kids. The idea for House apparently came from his daughter - the studio asked him if he had anything like Jaws - so he consulted his daughter who said what about killer furniture instead of a shark! He was born near Hiroshima in 1938 and later in his film career he directed an anti-war trilogy - Casting Blossoms to the Sky” (2012), Seven Weeks (2014) and Hanagatami (2017). Looking on Amazon, it doesn't appear that many of his films are available in English.

Though this has the supernatural and teenage girls in common with some of his earlier films, it is an entirely different animal. No phantasmagoric elements or cheesy fun special effects - it is a very somber, thoughtful, near morose coming of age story in a small Japanese town with a labyrinth of small narrow streets and houses built on the hillside overlooking the bay. It was filmed near Hiroshima. It focuses on Mika (Hikari Ishida - still a working actress) who is first seen when she is three years old - a sulky little girl called by nearly everyone outside of her family as Chizuko's Little Sister and it continues that way when she gets older. The film jumps about 13 years into the future - and something is off kilter though it takes us a while to realize that Chizuko has died in a terrible accident.  Mika is with her father (Ittoku Kishibe, an actor you come across all the time) and her mother (Fuji Junko - legendary from her films in the 1960s) - but the father has grown distant since the death and the mother is brittle and ready to break into little pieces. Neither are capable of giving Mika any support.

But she has Chizuko (Tomoko Nakajima - also still working). When Chizuko was dying she said a few things to her little sister - you are better than you think, take care of our parents and I will always look over you. And one night while walking home Mika is attacked by a man  who attempts to rape her and Chizuko appears and points to a rock that Mika uses to bash the man over the head. And Chizuko stays with her - giving her advice, cheering her on - through various adversities. Because not a lot goes really right in Mika's life - the parents grow further apart, a possible romance peters out, she has to drop out of the school play - but her older sister is always there. Whether Chizuko is in her head or real is hard to say. But through all this she begins to grow up - Hikari Ishida is terrific in maturing before our eyes - take on responsibilities - see the world for what it is and begins to write. About Chizuko.

Its portrayal of small town Japan is lovely and lyrical - her friendship with her gal pal Mako is endearing and enduring, the simple act of eating watermelon, the school scenes, riding bikes, sitting looking over the water fills out the film - all to the music from Joe Hisaishi. The supernatural aspect in the end is just a small though important part of the film. It works on different levels. All emotional.