tue 25/06/2024

Sweet Bean | reviews, news & interviews

Sweet Bean

Sweet Bean

Elliptical Japanese art movie about perfecting pancakes and overcoming prejudice

Finding dorayaki: veteran actress Kirin Kiri making her signature dish

Sweet Bean is one of those slow, gentle Japanese fables that one either loves or finds infuriatingly sentimental. Directed by documentarian Naomi Kawase, a film festival favourite whose features rarely make it to the UK, it played in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section and divided the critics. The French and Americans loved it, while hard-nosed British critics scoffed. 

Adapted from a novel, it’s the story of Sentaro, who makes dorayaki (little pancake purses stuffed with sweet red bean paste) and sells them from a corner shop in a Tokyo back street. Masatoshi Nagase plays Sentaro as a middle-aged man with a shadowy past – as an actor he's come a long way from the cool young dude in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 Mystery Train. Sentaro needs help in the shop, and is approached by Tokue, an old lady with a sweet smile and deformed hands; he turns her down initially but is seduced by her offering of home-made, fragrant bean paste. Soon business is booming, and Tokue (played by veteran actress Kirin Kiri) is a fixture in the shop, bringing her philosophical approach to cooking – “You must listen to the beans’ story.” This is not fast food, as the pre-dawn hours spent preparing the sweet filling attest.

Fans of frenetic foodie movies like Tampopo and Udon will find little zippy comedy here; this is more like a homage to the measured cinema of Ozu and Mizoguchi. The camera focuses on cherry trees crowding out the city’s overhead wires; lens flare fills the frame and puddles brim with fallen blossom. The odd couple in the shop are joined by a school girl with an unhappy home life, Wakana (played by Uchida Kyara, Kiri’s real life granddaughter, pictured above with Masatoshi Nagase) and the stories of the three unfurl and entwine in a leisurely way. 

As the narrative unwinds, there are revelations about past lives that speak volumes about Japanese notions of disability, disease and debt but it’s all rendered by Naomi Kawase in an elliptical manner. She lets the camera linger on faces and the actors reward the director's patience with nuanced performances – sometimes Kiri’s beatific smile becomes a little too cloying, but in the main, it’s a pleasure to be given the space and time just to watch the three characters’ thoughts play out through their expressions rather than copious dialogue. Their idyll in the shop is threatened by rumours about Tokue, and the owner imposing a change of menu and a new manager. 

How one reacts to a film is often influenced by what baggage one brings along; watching Sweet Bean the week after a young man slaughtered 19 people in their Sagamihara care home while preaching eugenics, gave an added edge to Nawase’s plea here for greater acceptance of disability. Perhaps the film relies too much on confessions narrated through letters and tape recordings rather than dynamic storytelling. Perhaps a soundtrack of wind rustling in trees and gentle piano tinkling is too much of a cliché of Japanese art house cinema but to those who occasionally like their movies to be tender-hearted, Sweet Bean is a miniature treat. 


Overleaf: watch the trailer for Sweet Bean


The camera lingers on faces and the actors reward the director's patience with nuanced performances


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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