Heartfelt story about the manager of a Japanese pancake stall who finds himself hiring an odd but sympathetic elderly woman once he’s had a taste of her homemade sweet red bean paste.
Of leprosy and pancakes: a low-key three-hander that shows more of the good than the bad of Japan’s perennial outsider director Kawase Naomi.
It is easy to forget what a breath of fresh air Kawase Naomi once seemed within Japanese filmmaking circles when she first emerged, aged just 18, at the turn of the 1990s with a series of highly personal Super 8 diaries and experimental films. The subsequent international recognition for her Caméra d’Or-winning feature debut Suzaku (1997) trail blazed a path for a new generation of women directors, such as Nishikawa Miwa and Tanada Yuki, who have since established successful commercial careers, slowly eroding the long-entrenched gender imbalance within the industry.
And yet in comparison with these figures, Kawase remains something of a marginal presence in her homeland, her prodigious output (which includes numerous documentaries, shorts and anthology segments alongside her eight features) buoyed instead by European funding and a consistently high Cannes profile. This outsider status can be attributed in part to her decision to base herself far from the industry hub of Tokyo; many of her films, including Hotaru (2000), Shara (2003) and The Mourning Forest (2007), are set in her birthplace, the ancient capital of Nara, while Nanayo (2009) and Still the Water (2014) unfold in exotic locales further afield, in Thailand and Okinawa respectively.
It seems fitting then that Kawase’s first film to be set in Tokyo (or rather its suburbs) should deal with those on the margins. Sentaro (Nagase Masatoshi, best known in the west for Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Cold Fever and Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train), a dispirited vendor of dorayaki pancakes, merely goes through the motions every day, turning up to work in order to pay off debts (incurred by a past misdemeanour) to the owners of the tiny patisserie he manages.
Tokue (the Kore-eda regular Kirin Kiki, seen earlier this year in Our Little Sister), the mysterious 76-year-old woman he reluctantly takes on as his kitchen assistant, her passion inspiring a new sense of pride and purpose in his work, is soon revealed to be a resident of a nearby sanatorium for sufferers of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. Meanwhile Wakana, a schoolgirl from a broken family, finds a home from home within the new Gemeinschaft that develops around the older woman’s artisanal recipe for the pancake’s a sweet-bean filling, honed over 50 years of domestic cooking.
Limiting the focus to these three characters works in the drama’s favour, certainly when compared with the typically meandering meditations on love, death and extended family life in Kawase’s previous work. And there are none of the nakedly autobiographical elements that have proved such a sticking point for viewers resistant to Kawase’s rather self-conscious, self-orientalising strain of auteurism.
These shifts in tone are best attributed to the fact that she is, unusually, adapting someone else’s work rather than developing an original story: the source material is the novel An by Sukegawa Durian, which deals with the very real but otherwise almost invisible issue of the outsider status of the several thousand leprosy patients currently housed in specialist sanatoriums across Japan. (Previous films broaching the subject include Toyoda Shiro’Spring on Leper’s Island, 1940, Nomura Yoshitaro’s The Castle of Sand, 1974, and Kumai Kei’s To Love, 1997.)
For viewers unfamiliar with Kawase’s oeuvre, Sweet Bean provides a better entry point than its laboured predecessor, Still the Water, which last year became her first to receive UK distribution. Despite its more sentimental tone, aesthetically the new film adheres closely to the template she established at the beginning of her career, with the phases of the protagonists’ shifting relationships relayed as impressionist fragments of everyday life against the changing seasons.
The low-key documentary naturalism is well served by Akiyama Shigeki’s lucid cinematography, and the montage that plays out as Sentaro reads Tokue’s letter of farewell, expressing the old woman’s nativist connection to the earth, harks back to the lyrical visual poetry of Kawase’s early 8mm work – notably the touching portrait of the great aunt who raised her, Katatsumori (1994). But the director’s characteristically mawkish dialogue in the accompanying voiceover, waxing in quasi-mystical terms about the adzuki bean’s rite of passage from field to kitchen or “the soul of a dorayaki”, may leave some viewers wishing that the centre of this latest confection were a little less cloying.
Jasper Sharp, Sight and Sound, 4th August 2016
If you’ve ever wondered what became of the young Japanese actor who played the insouciant, too-cool-for-Elvis (he preferred Carl Perkins) rock-and-roll fan in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 “Mystery Train” — well, Masatoshi Nagase, now nearly 50, doesn’t smirk even once in “Sweet Bean,” a new film directed by Naomi Kawase.
Mr. Nagase plays Sentaro, the laconic, haunted-looking proprietor of a stall from which he sells the Japanese confection dorayaki. Early in the film, as cherry blossom trees flower outside his place, we see him preparing batter, frying it up and putting dollops of red bean paste between two little pancakes. He’s devoted to his work, but something’s missing.
Along comes Tokue, an old woman, seemingly out of nowhere. Played by Kirin Kiki, she has a disarming smile, but also a haunted air — it seems to follow two steps behind her. She wants to work for Sentaro, who has no idea why and isn’t terribly interested. Until, that is, he tastes some red bean paste she’s made.
Some of the most entertaining food-themed films ever made have arrived from Japan over the past 30 years. “Sweet Bean” crosses this subgenre with the old-person-imparts-wisdom-to-younger-acolyte variety, but it is not typical of either kind of movie. As the two characters learn more about each other, sadness piles up at a pace that’s deliberate and relentless. When Tokue instructs Sentaro to cook the beans as if remembering the wind that touched them as it wended past their stalks, her own past as a pariah (she was confined for much of her life to a latter-day leper colony, we have learned) lends tragedy to her wisdom.
The movie, beautifully shot and acted, earns its ultimate sense of hope by confronting real heartbreak head-on, and with compassion.
Glenn Kenny, The New York Times, 17th March 2016.
Total Number of Responses: 79
Film Score (0-5): 4.38
132 members and guests attended last week and provided 79 responses, a hit rate of 60%. Many thanks for letting us know your views. The most used adjectives in your reviews were beautiful and wonderful. These were used in conjunction with “Beautifully photographed”, “Beautiful film, and great acting – very moving – wonderful photography”. “Beautiful film”. “A magical film from a consummately talented director. Wonderfully paced. Fine performances. Just what the GFS is all about”.
One member tells is that in their view Sweet Bean was “A quiet film that runs to the gentle rhythm of the seasons, its moral; that if you commit to doing something to the best of your ability there may be unseen rewards, is a useful one in our disposable age. The acting is understated and the plot moves in a stately waltz time, the scruffy urban landscapes given grace by the beauty of the cherry trees. The messages to celebrate the individual, value experience and defy prejudice are gracefully done and the finale pleasingly uplifting. A tad sentimental and simplistic perhaps but the smile from Sentaro is worth it”.
Another said that “This was a gentle slow burn of a film. The cherry blossom, the moon, and the three main characters were in harmony. Beautiful, evocative, and sad; it made me cry. It quietly made some really important points about life, loss, and friendship. Thank you for putting it on”.
Another member commented for the first time, “I've not yet sent or left a review, and I should have done for the film In Between which I loved. My rating for Sweet Bean is Excellent. I loved the gentleness of the film, my film club colleague thought the film was too long, but I didn't, I was entranced by the relationship between Sentaro "boss" and Tokue the cheeky gentle old lady who had a story to tell, and of course the schoolgirl Wakana. In fact all of them had a sad story to tell, and how their sadness brought them together. I didn't know that Japan had an isolation policy on lepers until 1996 and the cruel and heartless way they were treated, it was an eye-opener. The film was a lesson in mutual kindness which we could all learn from”.
“Another enjoyable Japanese offering. I found it a little slow at times and felt if it had been 10-20 minutes shorter it may have had more impact. Nonetheless a rather sweet story line with a surprising twist about leprosy, a condition I have not come across in modern context. The making of the bean sauce was mesmerising and has left me curious to try some as I have no idea what it tastes like. Thanks”. “Some lovely images and an engaging story, although I’m sure there were cultural references that I will have missed. One of those films where I was left not quite sure what had actually happened in places. A bit over-salted with emotion in places”. “Every aspect of this film – acting, story….photography, film technology…so very creative and beautiful. All a delight. My favourite so far”.
“A sweet and sentimental film, but I left feeling slightly disappointed, expecting to have enjoyed it more. Having set up some interesting characters and the potential for more than one story arc, the primary focus on Tokue's back story, great though the actress was, left other promising areas unexplored, and at times it dragged a little too slowly. Wakana is an intriguing character, with depths of sadness, and I would have loved to have found out more about her life. Even Sentaro's backstory was rather abridged. Ultimately it felt to me that there was some heavy-handed editing that left the film too focused on one aspect”.
“Slow lyric pace, a no surprises piece but lovely unfolding”. “Just a bit too long but still excellent”. “A wonderful, life affirming tale. Beautifully told against the backdrop of seasons and nature. Most moving”. “Wonderful”. “Beautiful”. “Lovely. A very gentle and serene film. So much nicer than so many we had at the start of the season. More like this please”. “Beautiful. Wonderful characters in a gentle happy – sad story”. “Wonderful film”. “Delightful but with a true quiet message”. “Wonderful film. Nicely paced. Very touching and well-acted”. “A little too long but very enjoyable”.
“Poignant. Dark and light moments. Beautifully filmed”. “Lovely story, beautifully acted. I would have liked the girl to be more involved but overall I loved it, hence Good not excellent”. “A bit on the long side, but very gentle simple life, with harshness of people”. “Wonderful film. Nicely paced. Very touching and well-acted”. “Gentle, sympathetic and showing the Japanese different interpretation – very clever”. “Yes the photography was great – yes the acting was beautiful – but the star was the story! More gripping than most action films”. “Loved the film, wonderful pace, great story”. “A truly beautiful film. Thank you for showing it”.
“Beautiful to look at and so well acted. Very poignant”. “Most charming”. “Great in parts – staged in others. Hard to score”. “Too slow. Great theme”. “Far too long. The plot, such as it was; was somewhat confusing”. “Typically gentle. Photography captivating. Perhaps a little too long”. “A real antidote to our quick-fix, ready-made instant gratification culture”. “As ever with Japanese films – beautifully filmed – a little slow – but wonderful photography and great acting”. “Beautifully filmed and shot – with food = health and happiness at its heart”.
“Beautiful and beautifully filmed”. “Beautiful, slow, long film”. “The end far too long! Some scenes unnecessary. Too many similar shots. Good acting by Kirin Kiki beautiful”. “If only she had worn gloves!” “Lovely story, very deep meaning and very moving”. “Beautifully acted by Kirin Kiki”. “I liked it – a very gentle film with the untouchables and damaged in our society being given a real chance. Predictable but good”.
“Beautiful and haunting, simple but profound story, with lots of interesting themes such as disability which is often invisible in Japan”. “Tender and thoughtful, a gentle change of pace”. “Deals with the question of acceptance of disability and disease by looking at one of the most historically feared diseases – leprosy. Looks at how sufferers crave acceptance and inclusion and to show they are still people with feelings and a lot to give society. Lovely style, colour and light”. “Good idea. Went on too long – eventually became tedious”. “Beautifully acted. I was shocked to learn that there are still leprosy sanatoria in Japan”. “I enjoyed this film even though the pace was very slow”.