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August 05, 2016

Sweet Bean


Naomi Kawase - 2015
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

Perhaps because it was adapted from a novel, Naomi Kawase's newest film is also her most accessible. Those most familiar with contemporary Japanese films will also note the presence of two well-established actors in the lead roles, Kirin Kiki and Masatoshi Nagase. Coincidentally, both actors were Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera.

A man, Sentaro, operates a small, one person restaurant, serving dorayaki to junior high girls and the occasional passerby in a suburb in the outer part of Tokyo. An elderly woman comes, inquiring about the post for part-time work. She has no work experience but convinces Sentaro to give her a chance after badgering him to try her bean paste, the ingredient that is placed between the two pancakes that are part of the dorayaki. Word of mouth brings customers in due to the the sweet bean paste. It's also word of mouth that drives customers aware when it is revealed that the woman, Tokue, has had leprosy, indicated by her gnarled hands.


Tokue is a woman who seems especially in touch with nature, stopping to admire the cherry trees in the neighborhood, or viewing the moon. The first time she cooks for Sentaro, he is put off by her eccentricities of "talking" to the beans, or demanding that when sugar is added to the bean paste, comparing the mix to a first date that requires two hours of the ingredients to know each other.

Being a Kawase film, time is taken for a montage of the preparation of the bean paste and the cooking process. The visual lyricism, with shots of cherry trees waving in the wind, and a walk through a heavily wooded area, is similar to Terrence Malick, though it doesn't dominate the narrative as it does in something like Malick's To the Wonder.

As in other Kawase films, there is the focus on outsiders, especially women. In addition to Tokue, and Sentaro, who is revealed to be an ex-con working in the restaurant to pay off a debt, part of the narrative is about Wakana, a junior high student. Unlike her fellow students, Wakana is unable to pay for "cram school" and her diet partially consists of the rejected dorayaki Sentaro has at the end of his day. Mention is made of the 1953 law that forced Japanese with leprosy to be housed in special facilities. That law was repealed in 1996. In a later scene, Sentaro and Wakana visit the run-down housing where Tokue and several other equally aged residents, also with leprosy, live.

The more cynical may treat the conclusion as a bromide about living in a way that is true to one's self. Low-key, muted and very humane, Sweet Bean may also be the perfect antidote to a summer of movie and real-life events marked by lots of sound and fury.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 5, 2016 03:01 PM