Naomi Kawase’s films are sometimes criticised for being cloyingly sentimental, but I have to admit that’s never bothered me, perhaps because I still find Japanese films so culturally different, and interesting; perhaps I’m concentrating less on the degree of sentimentality on show than others. Regardless, one could just as easily put a positive spin on Kawase’s films by saying they’re entirely free of cynicism and extremely warm-hearted. However, they also have a hidden bite, given that the small, neighbourhood-set stories about families or work colleagues are used to illustrate certain attitudes or problems that exist across Japanese society, as many great past and present Japanese filmmakers have done or do currently. Sweet Bean, Kawase’s latest, appears to be a simple tale, at first glance, but typically it has a slightly darker edge. We meet a man named Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), who runs a small dorayaki shop in Tokyo (dorayaki are small pancakes with a sweet bean filling), and it seems as though he relies on a few schoolgirls for regular custom, one of whom is the quiet but friendly Wakana (Kyara Uchida). When a lady in her mid-seventies named Tokue (Kirin Kiki) shows up at his shop window and asks for a job, Sentaro initially dismisses her, but Tokue comes back the next day with her own, home-made sweet bean paste, which she has been slowly perfecting for many years. Naturally it’s delicious, and Sentaro employs her on the spot, which makes the old lady very happy as she claims to have wanted to work in a dorayaki shop for years.
The film gently ambles along beyond this point, with Tokue’s paste becoming a word-of-mouth hit with the local community and long queues forming at Sentaro’s shop window each morning, though the question as to why Tokue has never sold her product commercially up to this point is soon answered. It turns out that deformities to her hands were caused by leprosy, and once the shop’s new customers find out they begin to stay away. Sentaro is forced, eventually, to let Tokue go or face ruin. At this point, though, the bond between Sentaro, Tokue and Wakana – who by now has begun working at the shop – has grown strong. Sentaro and Wakana visit Tokue in the sanitorium she lives in, where she and other patients were forced to live until the fairly recent repeal of an old Leprosy Act (a piece of legislation that has apparently been something of a scandal in Japan). When they visit Tokue has sage advice for her younger visitors, and gradually, as he becomes more comfortable, we begin to learn about Sentaro’s troubled past. The film saves its most emotional scenes for the final act, yet there’s no melodrama here, and characters instead break bad news to one another, or reveal things about themselves, in a quiet, simple fashion. It’s beautifully shot by Shigeki Akiyama and well-acted, with Kiki in particular delivering a warm (though hardly groundbreaking) portrait of a sweet old lady. I liked it, and Sweet Bean‘s central messages of slowing down in life, learning to improve via dedication to an act and repetition repetition, and enjoying what you do – all delivered via the old lady – are offered up persuasively enough for the viewer to take or leave.
Directed by: Naomi Kawase.
Written by: Naomi Kawase. Based on An by Durian Sukegawa.
Starring: Masatoshi Nagase, Kirin Kiki, Kyara Uchida.
Cinematography: Shigeki Akiyama.
Editing: Tina Baz.
Music: David Hadjadj.
Running Time: 113 minutes.