Sweet Bean (An)

Japan (2015) Dir. Naomi Kawase

Only in world cinema films can food be a key ingredient (excuse the pun) and avoid using it as a sexual allegory or for similar prurient reasons, instead it is a tool for a meditative look into the individual cultures. And no-one seems to do this better than the Japanese.

Sentarô (Masatoshi Nagase) is a forty-something who, to pay off a personal debt, runs a small dorayaki (pancake) shop which has a modest clientele. An opening for part time work is answered by 76 year-old Tokue (Kirin Kiki), an eager and persistent lady but her age and crippled hands are a primary concern Sentarô has against her.

After Tokue floors Sentarô with a sample of her homemade bean paste (An), she is reluctantly given the job and soon, word of mouth from Sentarô’s few regulars sees the shop enjoy a huge surge in business. But it is realised that Tokue’s damaged hands are the result of leprosy and trade suffers again once the rumours begin.

For Naomi Kawase, Sweet Bean is a departure on many fronts – first, this is a film based on a novel (by Durian Sukegawa) and not he own script, and second, the setting is suburbia when most of her films are usually set in the country and further afield. Yet this change of scenery hasn’t changed Kawase’s ability to capture the fragile natural beauty of the location.

Because of this, the film has none of the typical urgency and claustrophobia usually associated with city life, and unfolds at a comfortable and laconic pace just as if the modest dorayaki shop was operating in a small rural locale. This is helped in part with the timeline being spring entering into summer, the season of the cherry blossoms and the ensuing arrival of the sun creating a pleasant wistful atmosphere.

The central theme of the film, one that Kawase explores a lot in her work, is about allowing oneself to take a moment to enjoy the beauty of nature and embrace it when life throws rocks at you. The source material might have come from elsewhere but the sentiment, and the outcome of the story is the same – lives are enriched by a beguiling presence, lessons are learned, outlooks and philosophies are duly remodelled for the better.

In a very distant way Tokue is a Mary Poppins like figure within the framework of this tale, she sweeps into Sentarô life and by the magic touch of her sweet bean paste making skills, brings joy to those who try it and gives Sentarô a new outlook to improve on his lot. There is also a second person to be touched by Tokue, schoolgirl Wakana (Kyara Uchida) whose story is a rather conventional one.

As a regular at Sentarô’s shop, Wakana gratefully takes home the “reject” pancakes since her mother (Miki Mizuno) is barely around, or pays her daughter any attention when she is. Instead she refuses to let Wakana go to high school and insist she starts earning straight away. Wakana’s only friend is her pet canary which is not allowed in her apartment, and Sentarô’s shop is her sanctuary.

Can the sagacious if quirky old lady who talks to the beans she is boiling to hear their stories of the winds and rains they have endured be of some inspiration to help Wakana and Sentarô? We all know the answer to that but how it comes about is not quite how you think which is why this tale is so quietly compelling and touching without being overly melodramatic and manipulative.

Driving the story a little more into this territory however is the issue of Tokue’s leprosy which dominates the final act. It might not be common knowledge on this side of the world but Japan, like the US, had a Leprosy Prevention Law, in which sufferers were locked away in sanatoriums. This was repealed in 1996 but as demonstrated here, it is still a tender subject for some, but in no way is Tokue a martyr to her condition.  

It is this quiet dignity and strength with which Tokue carries herself, along with her appreciation of nature’s beauty which is the one thing that gives her solace and comfort,  that makes her such a poignant catalyst for the others to grab life by the horns and chase their dreams. Not to mention her quirky qualities, tottering around the kitchen and instructing Sentarô in how to perfect her sweet bean recipe.

Sentarô himself is weighed down by his past, his morose disposition and resigned commitment to the shop being just another burden. Through Tokue’s influence (and via an internal monologue) the truth finally comes out and we find that Sentarô is a victim of circumstance and a slave to his misfortunes. Wakana’s role is the more ambiguous of the two, her story arc being the least explored here.

As cruel as this may sound it is hard not to liken Tokue to Yoda in some abstract way, with Kirin Kiki’s tiny frame, slightly googly eyes and beguiling mannerisms as she holds court either making her famed confection or engaging with the customers. But it is the dramatic scenes in which the veteran’s experience shines though, serving as fierce directive for Hollywood to take note when it comes to focusing on the older stars.

Masatoshi Nagase and Kyara Uchida work well together in making up the central trio but the real co-star is the cinematography. Kawase has an eye for composition, ensuring every shot tells a story. The close-ups and the vivid detail of the sweet bean paste in production is a marvel to behold while the vistas shots are simply gorgeous.

One can look at Sweet Bean as a celebration of Japan’s quixotic approach to cooking and food preparation, or it can be seen as call for tolerance towards the afflicted in a modern and enlightened society. Either way it’s a sentimental slice of Japanese cinema to savour, and no added saccharine!