Director: Naomi Kawase / Screenplay: Naomi Kawase (based on Durian Sukegawa’s novel) / Editing: Tina Baz / DP: Shigeki Akiyama / Music: David Hadjadj
Cast: Kirin Kiki / Masatoshi Nagase / Kyara Uchida / Miyoko Asada / Etsuko Ichihara
Give it the Beans…
Japanese Director Naomi Kawase first came to international attention on winning the prestigious Camera d’Or (‘Best New Director’) at the 1997 Cannes Festival, for her first ‘proper’ feature Suzaku. Since that breakthrough, she has pioneered a style of film-making best described as ‘blurring the space between fiction and non-fiction’, as she runs a looking-glass over fractures in contemporary Japanese society. In other words, it’s possible to look beyond the film’s ‘surface’ interpretations and find deeper meaning; a theme I’ll return to here, in reviewing Sweet Bean.
Other things to note going-in? Well, Kawase appears – to this ignorant Brit, at least – to be something of an outlier in the contemporary Japanese film industry on two counts. First and most obviously, she’s a woman in a very male-dominated trade; moreover, thanks to her international recognition, she’s exceeded the reach of her male peers: can YOU think of any high-profile, male Japanese directors working today?
Come to think of it, I hadn’t heard of Kawase either, prior to watching ‘Bean, but that’s to miss the point: namely that, there must be dozens of male directors working in Japan, which makes it all the more remarkable that it’s Kawase’s film under-discussion & not their’s!
Second, Kawase is based, not in Tokyo or Kyoto, the traditional hubs of film production in the country, but in Japan’s ancient capital of Nara. In interviews, Kawase has spoken about her reluctance to leave (a corollary of a childhood spent in the city), as being a boon to her subsequent career, as it’s cheaper to finance a picture outside the big cities, where talent commands higher fees. As a result, she’s unafraid of using local (often unprofessional) talent & crew-members to get her films made and for that dogged persistence alone, I salute her.
So then, what of the film?
Things begin in a quiet, low-key fashion with Sentaro, a man slumping into a complacent middle-age, who evidently lives alone in a poky, anonymous flat. Played with real restraint and with an honest naturalism by Masatoshi Nagase, Sentaro runs a small kiosk in which he makes and sells Dorayaki. It’s a local sweetmeat, consisting of two small pancake-like discs, sandwiching a layer of sweet Azuki-bean paste (called ‘An’ in Japanese, this was the film’s local title).
Yet, even in these opening moments, sprinkled only with incidental dialogue, it’s clear that Sentaro would rather be doing something else; there’s a wearied monotony to his routine that speaks of thoughtless repetition; a mood captured by Kawase and her DP, Shigeki Akiyama. Their palette is muted and littered with desaturated colours. It’s all low-key and evocative of Sentaro’s dissatisfaction. He can’t even stop to acknowledge a beautiful Cherry tree that’s blossoming right outside: but now someone enters who does see its blossom – standing back to admire both the tree and kiosk, as if they’re a newly-minted ‘Fairy Godmother’, sizing-up their next rescue job.
Which begins, when the observer – a sparky, genial old lady called Tokue – applies to Sentaro for the advertised job of kitchen assistant. At first, Sentaro spots Tokue’s gnarled, disfigured hands and sees this, along with her apparent frailty – as a reason for not hiring her. Though consistently respectful to her, it’s clear that Sentaro has in-mind someone more dynamic and, err, ‘hands-on’.
Not that Sentaro is entirely heartless, as after dismissing Tokue, he gives a small bag of rejects to a schoolgirl, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), who looks as though she needs them more than the bin… We’ll see later on, that Wakana’s a ‘latch-key kid’ and someone ignored at-home, if not neglected. She’s also lacking in ambition, as once Tokue leaves, she announces to a bemused Sentaro, that she intends to leave school and take the job herself: little wonder he’s helping her. If Sentaro really is this miserable at the job he finds himself doing, it’s as if he sees it as his responsibility to divert this young girl onto something Better while he can…
Undeterred, Tokue returns the next day, bringing a tub of her own bean-paste and demands that Sentaro taste it. This, after she’s tasted one of his own Dorayaki, the day before. Her verdict? ‘Your pancake’s alright, but your bean-paste is not so good’. Coming from such a sweet old lady, you just know this is damning Sentaro with faint praise!
At first, Sentaro casts her tub in the bin but, as expected, his curiosity gets the better of him and he retrieves it. Sure enough, it’s the best-damn-bean-paste he’d ever tasted. That evening, coincidence brings he and Wakana together in a local noodle bar and he tells her just how good it was; as if Kawase was uncertain of leaving his stunned reaction back at the kiosk as the only ‘tell’. Instead, we have Wakana comment that, if it really was that good, Sentaro ought to hire Tokue; this coming from someone who’d been keen to take the job for herself, thus implying that Tokue must be someone pretty special. This is Wakana wising-up to her own fantasy-life and bowing to reality, in a telling exchange.
Next day, when Tokue returns, Sentaro offers her the job and her reaction, of overwhelming gratitude was, for this viewer at least, quite a moving sequence. Tokue is played by Kirin Kiki, a veteran actress of Japanese film & TV; a versatile character actress / comedienne, beloved most for a string of humorous TV commercials. In Kiki’s hands, Tokue is shown as a vulnerable soul, yes, but also someone attuned to the spiritual side of life. After learning that Sentaro buys his paste ready-made, in large catering tins, her initial dismay gives-way to a thoughtfully-paced – and shot – masterclass, as she teaches Sentaro (and us, by extension) how to make her own recipe. Throughout, Tokue is sharing her knowledge of ‘the old ways’ with a joyous, infectious clarity; she delights in the telling and sharing of her burnished lore, as much as from its practical application.
As an example, take this answer when she’s asked how much longer the beans should simmer in the pan: ‘Pretty soon now. The scent of the steam has changed’. Not having read the original novel by Durian Sukegawa, I can’t say whether such nuanced exchanges were present all along, but in the context of a film that delights in giving space for a multitude of longueurs and visual meditations on the changing ‘seasons of life’, it all helps Kawase sustain her intended mood. As a result, the film evokes memories of watching your own Grandmother make a cake, so methodical & ritualistic is Tokue’s process…
By the way, it’s no accident that there should be a flowering Cherry right outside the kiosk. The Japanese revere the Cherry’s all-too-brief blossoming, not just because it’s a beautiful sight, but that it represents the true, underlying nature of our existence. Life is fleeting. We’re only here for a blink of Nature’s eye. We should therefore enjoy our own brief flowering while we’re here; before our own mortality steals us away, back to the source. Deep, right? Yes, but it’s no more than Kawase’s bio led me to expect: layers within layers, remember.
After more hours in-prep than Sentaro ever expected, when Sentaro greedily bites into his New! Improved! Dorayaki, the results are predictable. His verdict? ‘I’ve finally met a Dorayaki I could stomach’.
It led me to this further thought: that Kawase’s film is a commentary on the enduring values & principles inherent in ‘Craft’. In an era when so much is mass-produced and as fleeting as the contents of Sentaro’s catering tins, Kawase’s underlying truth is this: Sentaro’s miserable because he’s not making anything. Instead, with his reliance on processed ingredients, he’s merely assembling his wares. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that he derives no satisfaction from his allotted trade. Anyone can do it – his results are nothing special, after all – but it happens to be HIS Fate. Bummer.
We learn too, that he has an obligation of sorts to his kiosk’s late landlord (and now his widow, in-turn). This selfish shrew of a woman appears not to have either Sentaro’s best interests or that of her late husband to-heart, as she reveals plans to re-model the kiosk; installing a grill, along with her bored, indifferent nephew, whom she intends to run it.
Sentaro might be blind to the beauty surrounding his little kiosk, but even he can now see the writing on the wall. His landlady’s decision has been reached, thanks in-part, to news from a growing wave of uninformed customers, that their tasty treats – no matter how good they’ve suddenly become – are now being handled by a leper. That’s right: Leprosy is the cause for Tokue’s disfigurement…
If you were easily led and influenced, I can see how that might put you off visiting said establishment, but neither Sentaro or Wakana are so shallow; for a start, they’re already used to living marginalised lives… From the beginning, I think Sentaro harbours suspicions as to Tokue’s condition, but he overlooks them, so as to learn from her – from a fellow human being, after all – and thus grow back into the man he used to be.
Kawase neatly side-steps an embarrassing episode for Sentaro (one in which he let’s Tokue go), by having Tokue read the signs for herself. Having concluded that she’s the reason for the lack of customers, she excuses herself before Sentaro utters the words. In another moving sequence, we see her remove her apron knowing full-well, that it’s for the last time. When she steps outside, she waves at the Cherry tree in farewell; she’s enjoyed its proximity – its company – these past few months and is sorry to leave it behind; the joke being, that Sentaro still hasn’t acknowledged this silent witness; so blinded has his own outlook become.
At this point, I want to mention the picture’s budget: at £1.6 million (or $2 million if you’re more familiar), it’d barely cover the catering budget on a typical Hollywood franchise production. Through necessity, the resulting set-ups leave the film resembling a stage-play, in that it has (mostly) one central location: a small kiosk, whose four walls serve to frame and define the action. If the budget is giving Kawase only lemons to work with, she makes a virtuous lemonade, from the carefully chosen location and cast; one wonders how the ‘Hollywood remake’ might reconfigure things around the (inevitably) inflated budget…
That said, in Act Three, Kawase blows the last of her budget on a visit by Sentaro & Wakana to the ‘Leper Colony’, as they track-down Tokue, some time after she left the kiosk. Not so much an ‘out-of-bounds-colony’ as a secluded ‘cottage-hospital’, they meet Tokue’s old friend – and fellow patient – Yoshiko, along with Tokue herself, who now appears greyer of complexion and dulled in-spirit, despite her joy at seeing her two new friends. She tells the story of how she was brought there as a child and all-but abandoned by her family. As a result, the other patients become her new, surrogate family and she and Yoshiko become everyone’s go-to cooks; a duty they obviously relish, as it allows them to indulge their creativity and aforementioned love of Craft. As if to prove the point, when examples of their own food are produced, Sentaro & Wakana pause only briefly, before tucking-in, to the satisfied smiles of the cooks. Remember: such sumptuous fare would be shunned by less-enlightened folk and the fact that Sentaro & Wakana are here at all, marks them out as kindred spirits worthy of such privilege. What’s privilege to some, is shunned by others, yet all it takes to reach enlightenment is to reach out and learn the truth…
A simple statement, yet one seemingly hard to grasp in the fractious times in which we live.
Thus the wheel turns for the kiosk’s remodelling begins soon after, signalling a change in Sentaro’s outlook. He returns to the ‘Colony’, only to learn that Tokue had passed away just a few days earlier. His initial dismay is tempered by joy and an understanding – at last – of her life-lessons. Now, his own life’s given new impetus on learning that she bequeathed him her collection of bean-paste utensils. Maybe – just maybe – Sentaro can find his own path, in which he can pursue his new-found appreciation for life – for craft – in a fresh environment that’ll nurture his soul…
If the plot is simplistic – and it is – I think there’s something to be said for its execution. Yes, it’s corny and formulaic, but Kawase plays-out her lure with such mannered poise, that it leaves the film feeling like a string of cinematic HaiKu. Don’t come here for high-octane thrills. Instead, revel in a timeless story told with timeless skill, that caresses the viewer’s emotions like a warm bath. The film’s corners are brightly lit and hold few secrets back on the first-watch, but that’s no reason for you not to enjoy some Sweet Bean.
After all, you’d try anything once, wouldn’t you?
Smile when something is delicious.