Sweet Bean is a deeply moving depiction of true friendship and a lesson on how to appreciate life through the world around us — including our food. The story centers around Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), a manager of sorts at a local food stall that serves sweet treats called dorayaki, which are made of sweet bean paste sandwiched between two small pancakes. Sentaro is a rather unhappy guy, dragging his feet around, he travails from his apartment to his shop, which is only steps away. He is unaware of his surroundings, except when those surroundings annoy him. Early on he shoos away a group of young girls who talk too loud and laugh too much. However, he seems to give great care to his work, investing on preparing the perfect pancake.
It is a lonesome existence for Sentaro, who barely says a word to his young customers. One day, apparently out of nowhere, Tokue (Kirin Kiki) comes to the dorayaki shop and asks if the sign posted outside looking for help would consider her, a 76-year-old woman. Sentaro dismisses her, politely giving her some dorayaki and tells her the position is not right for her. It only takes a taste sweet bean paste prepared by Tokue, for a change of heart. In fact, Sentaro’s entire perspective on this woman changes, a familiar feeling for anyone who has judged another fellow human being too quickly. The shift starts to reveal the many cracks in Sentaro’s character and the slow-building relationship between the two starts to show the open wounds they both carry.
Directed by Naomi Kawase, Sweet Bean is beautifully shot, showcasing Japan’s natural landscape, but it also treats its flawed characters with the same loving eye Kawase gives a cherry blossom tree slowly swayed by wind. In close-ups Kawase shows the characters without glamour, the life they have lived marked on their faces. Tokue has a sincere and affable smile but walks and moves with trouble, and her crippled hands tell a story of sorrow that she learns to transform into something redemptive.
Through her cooking lessons we see Sentaro’s character slowly open up and soften. He learns the secrets of slow-cooking an amazing sweet bean paste that has the little dorayaki shop booming, but he also learns compassion along the way. Nagase’s performance is not only believable but also so gradual it is a testament to Nagase’s acting skills.
Although food-themed films abound, Sweet Bean compounds fetishistic food shots with deeper insights about Japan’s own harsh history. The film criticizes some of the unfair policies the country instituted and the social consequences felt throughout its current history. The movie is touching but not too sentimental thanks largely in part to its great performances. The pacing at times feels sluggish, but the last half of the film delivers a punch. A little patience is not too much to ask from the audience to unlock the sweet treat that Sweet Bean offers.
Sweet Bean runs 113 minutes, is in Japanese with English subtitles and is not rated (in Japan it was rated G). The film will be shown exclusively in our area at the Coral Gables Art Cinema starting this Friday. NOTE: The first 10 ticket holders at the 6:30 p.m. screening on Friday, June 10, will receive a FREE taiyaki — a delicious traditional Japanese cake! The movie had its Florida premiere earlier this year at the Miami International Film Festival. For information on nationwide screenings, please click here. Also, for fans of Japanese Cinema, the Coral Gables Art Cinema will host “Anime Japanese Gems,” at the end of the month. Check out the line up here.
(Copyright 2016 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)