Release Date: May 30th, 2015
Running Time: 113 mins.
Director: Naomi Kawase,
Writer: Naomi Kawase (Screenplay), Tetsuya Akikawa (Original Novel),
Starring: Masatoshi Nagase, Kirin Kiki, Kyara Uchida, Etsuko Ichihara, Miki Mizuno, Taiga, Wakato Kanematsu, Miyoko Asada.
Travelling through Japan is an amazing culinary experience because of the sheer amount of restaurants, stores and street food available in shotengai, yokocho and main streets. Everything from big chains to small stores selling a variety of things from tasteless but healthy jelly-like konyaku to the pastry-like manju (the greatest delicacy!!!) all cooked up and served by a variety of people. The most memorable encounters I had were usually old ladies with crooked backs bent from a lifetime of hard work. While they were cooking they would impart some of their experiences and what the food means and these experiences and informed how they cooked and made the food seem more meaningful and tasty than store-bought goods. It is this sort of thing that Naomi Kawase channels in her drama Sweet Bean which is based on a novel by Durian Sukegawa. It tells the tale of a melancholy cake shop owner who rediscovers his joie de vivre after meeting an exceptional person. It marries Kawase’s visual lyricism and penchant for making connections between humans and nature to a simple tale and works well.
Sweet beans, known as an in Japanese, is a wonderfully sweet-tasting thick substance made from adzuki beans and is a filling usually found in confections from doughnuts to the dorayaki as seen in this film. Dorayaki are like pancakes where the batter is poured onto a metal griddle and flipped with a spatula before the sweet bean filling is added.
We get to see this sizzling delight up close and when we encounter Sentarou (Masatoshi Nagase), or Sen-chan, as he is called by a gaggle of schoolgirls who frequent his dorayaki store and tease him for being glum. He is a man of few words with a saturnine expression who joylessly churns out dorayaki which taste a little off. He has a loyal customer named Wakana (Kyara Uchida), a girl about to enter high school who sticks around for the leftover dorayaki. She is in a battle with her mother who wants her to get a job instead of education to help with the finances. Sentarou’s store doesn’t make much money by the looks of it which may explain why he looks so sad as he listlessly interacts with his customers and cooks the same old lifeless dorayaki. When he advertises for help, he gets an offer from an older woman.
Wearing a cloche hat and a big grin, Tokue Yoshii (Kirin Kiki) wanders up but at 76 years-old she’s not exactly the ideal candidate considering the physical labour involved in cooking, something made more difficult by the fact she has mysteriously scarred hands. However, she refuses to take no for an answer and eventually wins Sentarou over when she gives him a tub of her own homemade red bean paste. Cue delightful sequences of the Tokue schooling the younger man in the art of cooking adzuki. They labour from the crack of dawn as they take fresh adzuki beans, soak them in water to get the bitterness out, drain waste water, boil them the adzuki while adding salt and sugar, and stir them into their final form then fill the dorayaki with the results before the store opens just as the afternoon approaches.
The sweet taste of Tokue’s red bean paste soon replaces the store-bought stuff that Sentarou previously used to fill the dorayaki and the confection becomes popular with local people and the dorayaki shop flourishes. Sentarou begin to look a little happier while Wakana and other customers also enjoy the presence of the chatty and charming lady. Of course, during such intense prep the two get to talking and Tokue discovers the surprising fact that Sentarou is a man without a sweet tooth and she also discovers that he is shackled to the store because of a secret debt linked to an incident that lies at the heart of his sadness. Tokue also has a secret linked to her scarred hands and as the truth about it gets around town she is forced to retreat from society. Sentarou and Wakana decide to search for her…
Both Sentarou and Tokue are outsiders in society and during the midsection of the film we see how they are isolated and what it means that they venture into each other’s orbit and show some humanity. His simple act of hiring Tokue and her philosophy on life and appreciating every aspect of being alive help the two become connected to the world again.
As is Kawase’s style nature features heavily and the changing seasons mark the passage of time. The location of the film, Higashimurayama in western Tokyo, features an abundance of cherry blossoms and the film is book-ended with beautiful sights and sounds as streets burst with life from all the showers of pink petals and sunshine and the start of a new school term with the sound of children laughing. Summer is spent with Tokue and Sentaro working hard and we feel the enthusiasm for cooking and meeting people while autumn and winter mark the end of things before there is renewal in spring again.
The cooking sections mesh well with the characters talking philosophically. Gentle urging from Tokue for the correct way to approach treating ingredients leads to lines like, “bean paste is the soul of dorayaki”, which she will say as we see the sweet beans come to life. Their efforts take the form of omotenashii, a concept of hosting the ingredients – listening to them and treating them gently as they are turned into the filling. It is a caring and soulful way of looking at cooking and delivered with Kirin’s charming performance so it comes across as wise rather than folksy. We believe that her character’s 50 years of experience are shown in the hours it takes to prepare the food as we are given a lesson in the art of culinary craftsmanship from the delightful elderly lady who has boundless appreciation for living.
When Kawase wants to make a larger point about how people are connected to nature she crafts beautiful dreamlike sequences with Kirin walking through forests and her narration giving her character’s positive philosophy on life that celebrates the existence of all things. “We are brought into the world to listen to it. We each have meaning.” Lines like this can fall flat with other films but due to witnessing Tokue’s cooking tips given to Sentarou and the images Kawase conjures up it doesn’t feel pretentious here. We appreciate the flow of time and momentary connections that help characters grow, much like the appearance of cherry blossoms.
The performers are perfect for evincing the humanity of their characters through showing the purest and simplest of emotions such as friendship and sadness in expressive ways so we feel sympathy and understand how much each person helps the other out of their isolation. Nagase sells the stoic and mirthless Sentarou well and generates authentic force when his cryptic character breaks down while in the presence of Tokue. It gives the film a powerful burst of emotion in one key scene and an uplift at the end. Kyara Uchida, Kirin’s granddaughter, is good as Wakana. Kirin herself is truly charming as the vulnerable but relentlessly positive Tokue, an emotion we learn that has come from a tragic background. She is a lesson for everyone to appreciate life and seek it out, regardless of hardships.