For reasons I don’t fully understand, the Japanese director Naomi Kawase divides film critics and audiences. A regular presence at Cannes, her films have until recently been seen only at festivals in much of the English-speaking world. It wasn’t until Still the Water from 2014 that she achieved a UK release. Despite all her international festival prizes (or perhaps because of them?), Kawase’s films often attract descriptions such as ‘pretentiousness’ and ‘lacking in narrative drive’. Critics also seem to be put off by her interests in ecology and spiritual connections (which with my limited knowledge I see as traditionally Japanese). Some critics have also put her alongside Terrence Malick in respect of these traits. Her new film has attracted some of the same comments and at 113 minutes its telling of a simple story does suggest a slow pace. However, it didn’t feel slow to my viewing companion and me. We loved the film and both shed some tears – it has also been deemed ‘sentimental’ by detractors, but many in the general audience for the film will like it very much.
The film begins with the morning ritual of a solitary man in his late 40s who is preparing to open his small shop selling dorayaki – sweet red bean paste (the an of the title) sandwiched between simple sweet pancakes. His loyal customers are mainly local schoolgirls but this morning Tokue, a woman in her 70s, drops by enquiring after the part-time job he has advertised. The man (whose name is Sentarô, but who is most of the time simply ‘Boss’) attempts the classic ‘put-off’ strategy to avoid offending Tokue, telling her there is heavy lifting, long hours, low pay etc. She accepts a sample dorayaki and reluctantly leaves only to return the next day with a sample of her own home-made bean paste which she has been making for fifty years. He eventually tastes it and discovers that it is delicious and far superior to the factory-made stuff he buys in. From here on the storyline will be familiar up until the point when we begin to find out more about the three main characters. The backstories are perhaps rather unexpected and though the film’s resolution is fairly conventional, the second half of the film does deliver some insights into Japanese culture as well as exploring more universal concerns.
This is the first time Naomi Kawase has adapted a novel, I think. Many Japanese films are literary adaptations and Durian Sukegawa’s novel was published in France under the title of Les délices de Tokyo (also the film title in France). As with many film festival regulars, Naomi Kawase finds her major overseas support in France and An, like Still the Water is a French co-production. The novel seems to fit Kawase’s overall approach and her interest in the moon and trees seems perfectly in tune with the main story. The film is located in a Tokyo district with enough spare ground for a plantation of cherry trees and the narrative opens (and closes) with a display of cherry blossom. As many reviewers have noted the cherry blossom signifies both the passage of time (a wonderful shot when the roads are covered in blossom fall) and also something about the importance of seasons and the true bond between humans and the natural world. My favourite line in the film was a reference to a brand of sea salt, “dried under the moon on a southern island”.
The cherry blossom reminded me of the German film Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossom, Germany/France 2008) which shares some of the same elements – and received a similar mixed critical response. Like Kirschblüten, Sweet Bean is a film about (broken) family relationships. The third main character is a schoolgirl, Wakana who lives with her mother in a nearby apartment. Wakana is separated from the other girls at school who are cramming for entrance exams for college/university as her mother wants her to leave to earn money. The dorayaki shop is a refuge for her and eventually she will become the initially unwitting agent of the changes in the narrative. As the back stories emerge, we also realise that Tokue and Sentarô are in some ways in a surrogate mother-son relationship. The performances of all three central characters are excellent and the actors Kiki Kirin (Tokue) and Uchida Kyara (Wakana) are actually grandmother and grand-daughter. I was disappointed after the screening to discover that I ought to have recognised both of them because of the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu and that reference seems particularly apt as Sweet Bean would be likely to appeal to the (growing) audiences entranced by Kore-eda’s recent films including Our Little Sister (Japan 2015). Nagase Matososhi) who plays Sentarô is another very experienced Japanese actor and together the trio convey the precise mood that Kawase seeks to create.
I won’t spoil the second half of the narrative by explaining the social issue involved. It was a surprise to me – but then aspects of Japanese society are often surprising. I’ve seen Sweet Bean dismissed partly because it is seen as an example of ‘food porn’. This strikes me as a particularly crass comment. My experience is that Japan (like several other non-Anglo cultures) has preserved an interest in traditional food culture (as well as embracing a bewildering array of convenience foods) and that these are appreciated by the majority of the population. Japanese culture is also strong in terms of presentation, so there is a desire to make even inexpensive foods attractive. In Sweet Bean we have both alcohol in plastic from a vending machine and sweet cakes dispensed from a traditional shop space – the old and the new together. I seem to remember that there is a big emphasis on food as part of family and friendship culture in Kore-eda’s films as well. If critics don’t like Sweet Bean, I suspect that their take on food is not very reliable either.