With excellent performances and a fine directing touch, 'Sweet Bean' is a film worth finding and savoring.
Before my grandmother passed away, she taught my wife how to make homemade pierogi from scratch. There were no cookbooks nor smartphone apps to be found in the kitchen that day. All that filled the room were the intoxicating smells of our traditional Christmas Eve dinner, a pile of ingredients that dwindled as the day grew long, and two people standing side-by-side, one passing tradition along to the other in a culinary masterclass of ethnic cuisine. I was reminded of that day while watching Sweet Bean, the latest film from writer/director Naomi Kawase.
“Making bean paste is all about heart, sonny.” So says 76-year-old Tokue (Kirin Kiki) as she all but begs for a part-time job from baker Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase). Despite her enthusiasm and her willingness to take less pay than he is offering, Sentaro is reluctant to employ Tokue because of her age, the frailty that accompanies it, and her gnarled hands. He isn’t dismissive, but he certainly isn’t open-minded. The next morning, Tokue returns with a container of her own homemade An (sweet red bean paste), along with a little trash talk about how Sentaro’s An isn’t very good. She argues that the paste he uses doesn’t taste good, and that the delicious pancakes he makes for his dorayakis are betrayed by such poorly mass-produced filling.
It isn’t until after he tries Tokue’s paste that Sentaro finds religion in the recipe. He hires Tokue, and in the process gets much more than a loyal and hardworking employee (and lines of new customers who have heard about this otherworldly confection). On his journey with the septuagenarian, one he shares with Wakana (Kyara Uchida), a teenage girl who frequents his shop, the baker learns much more than Tokue’s secret recipe.
While there is considerable depth to Sweet Bean, no other consideration can be given to the film without first addressing its culinary aspect. It’s marvelous. Some cooking scenes are brief but impactful, like several where Sentaro makes batter from scratch, pours the golden gooey goodness on the skillet, and flips the palm-sized pancakes at just the right golden-brown moment. Other scenes are a little more special, particularly the dazzling 10-minute sequence where Tokue and Sentaro work side-by-side so the elder can show the baker just how that paste is made. It’s all so dazzling in its meticulousness. Kawase’s observations on cooking are quite intimate, with many close-ups that give the viewer a sense of the food’s texture, combined with Shigeki Akiyama’s rich cinematography that strikes the perfect balance of soft and warm to create something of a visual tasting menu.
Deeper, though, the cooking sequences before the introduction of Tokue offer more than just gastric titillation. Nagase, who is excellent as Sentaro, uses the baker’s solo cooking scenes to convey a sense of heaviness in his soul. Cooking is driven by all five senses, making it a very passionate form of art. But through the listless repetition of his daily routine, Sentaro postures himself as one who has lost that passion years ago, with no desire to find it again. Even when a small group of giggling and chatty schoolgirls show up for their daily treat, he is unmoved by them. This is the result of something from his past that continues to haunt his present and affect his future, a secret that’s revealed later on in the film.
Also revealed later in the film is the part of Tokue’s life that at one time may have haunted her, but is now something that she has learned to live with and live through. Her approach to cooking has its roots in nature. She speaks of things like listening to the stories that the beans tell as she goes through her cooking ritual. One can’t help but wonder, at least at first, if these are simply the musings of a woman who has lived alone for too long. But the character is one keenly in tune with nature, particularly the cycle of the cherry blossoms, and who is mostly intoxicated by that connection, creating a giddiness that belies her age. Kiki, who is delightful in this role, presents Tokue as both the crazy aunt and caring grandmother everyone loves in equal measure yet for entirely different reasons.
Wakana is a little less developed as a character, thus a little more enigmatic, but no less important. Like Sentaro and Tokue, she is somewhat alone. She lives with her mother, but her mother seems more concerned about having spilled her beer than worrying about what the spill might have ruined. This less specific character sketch, coupled with the fact Wakana plays a critical role late in the film, suggests the girl is a step or two removed from being nothing more than a character of convenience. But her daily patronage of Sentaro’s shop, and how he treats her compared to the giggling schoolgirls who also come in every day, suggest Wakana has a certain gravitas that will eventually reveal itself. It does, but mostly in the sense that she will become the next generation needed to take up this art of cuisine and use what she has learned from those before her. She shares a brief but memorable moment over tempura with Sentaro, where the two of them meet by chance at a local restaurant one evening (before Tokue’s hiring) and decide to dine together. Sentaro speaks to Wakana like an adult, confiding in her something that surely took guts for him to admit, let alone share.
The film’s ending is predictable (and early), and that ending veers towards mawkish, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying.
Based on a novel by Durian Sukegawa, Sweet Bean (known also as An and Sweet Red Bean Paste) is a delicate, enchanting, layered Japanese drama about so much more than food. It’s about isolation, regret, and the sense of helplessness that comes with losing control of your own destiny. These three people are forever bonded as both equals and (unrelated) generations of a greater spiritual family. With excellent performances and a fine directing touch, Sweet Bean is a film worth finding and savoring.