Sweet Bean is a gentle film that lingers lovingly on the senses. To experience it is like biting into the sweet Japanese pastry at the heart of the story and realizing that what may at first taste too sugary is in fact deliciously, soulfully comforting.
This is the kind of movie whose pace is so measured that at first it may seem too, well, slow. Until you realize at about 15 minutes in to Sweet Bean (An in Japanese) that your blood pressure has dropped and with it, so has formed a slight smile around the corners of your mouth that’s there to stay. Such is the effect of this 2015 low-key charmer that defies a classically sentimental theme by virtue of the utmost honesty and naturalness in its trio of fine actors.
The film opens on another early morning for Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), a pensive baker who rarely speaks, as he wearily makes the pancakes (in his little dorayaki shop) which he then fills with a commercially packaged sweet red bean paste. He takes no joy from his work; indeed his eyes and slumped posture reveal a man whose heart is heavy and whose mind is burdened by some great weight. Among his regulars each morning is a quiet schoolgirl named Wakana (Kyara Uchida), herself an outsider in her world. One morning, a mysterious yet kindly old woman with severely gnarled hands appears at the dorayaki shop and asks to be considered for the kitchen assistant job posted in the window. Her name is Tokue and her portrayal by the beloved, veteran Japanese actress, Kirin Kiki is nothing short of luminous. Sentaro recognizes an authenticity and a simple goodness in Tokue, as well as her genius for the preparation of the sweet bean paste at the center of the dorayaki. And although the old woman addresses him as Boss, Sentaro soon finds himself a willing student to Tokue, while an even deeper connection starts to grow between them, and includes Wakana, who finally begins to come out of her shell while in the company of the older woman. (In fact, Kyara Uchida is in real life the granddaughter of Kirin Kiki.) Thus begins a relationship between the three which will profoundly change them forever. Except for the mystery surrounding Tokue’s past which, once revealed, cannot be ignored.
Lovingly made by renowned Japanese director, Naomi Kawase, who co-wrote the script with Durian Sukegawa (based on his own novel), Sweet Bean is one of those films whose deceptive simplicity belies a deep beauty at the heart of its story, having to do with the respect for the elderly, the love of Nature, and the simple joys that are found in honest labor. In this way it reminded me of a traditional Japanese haiku, whose 3-line, 17-syllable form seems flimsy until the realization that something profound has been expressed within such a sparing economy of space. That’s the sensation – the taste, if you will – that lingers on the soul long after this film is digested.
YouTube Trailer Courtesy of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJnLW_tTgAE
Sweet Bean is presently streaming on Netflix.
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