Everyone searches for meaning. It's a quest that consumes us all, from the time that we start wondering why we're here or what we're doing with our lives. Day in and day out, there's a gentle undercurrent to our existence that yearns for a sliver of understanding amid the chaos. There comes a time when you're surrounded by the broken dreams and the consequences and the nearly desperate journey for escape that follows—a way to grasp the threads of the future left open to you. This is the unifying theme for the principal characters in Naomi Kawase's Sweet Bean.
Dorayaki chef Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) toils away in the shop where he makes the sweet bean confection, which is basically like a Japanese moon pie. And he's drowning in the din of teenage schoolgirl complaints about his poor attempts at pastry-making. By his own admission, he doesn't have a sweet tooth. The bean paste (called "an" in Japan) comes from a giant can that he orders each day. He soon meets an elderly woman named Tokue (played expertly by Kirin Kiki) who asks to work at the shop but is rebuffed several times. Tokue convinces Sentaro to allow her to try her hand at the business after she gives him a sample of her bean paste, which Sentaro remarks is "rarely this good." She soon reveals that she's been making bean paste by hand for 50 years and is appalled that he's using a canned substitute. Of course, not all is at it seems, and Tokue's gnarled hands and charming way of looking at life are the result of an illness that's rarely talked about, but which we all are familiar with.
Unfortunately, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), the third character of the protagonist trifecta, isn't as well enough developed to provide ample connection to the audience. Her relationship to her mother (who appears in just one scene, so we can only assume she is somewhat of an absentee parent) makes her feel trapped. But we don't discover this until after percolating on the visual juxtaposition between her and her pet canary Marvy. Her motivations are obscure, and her reasons for cultivating a relationship with Sentaro and Tokue are nebulous.
In film, showing rather than telling is typically the rule, but in this case, a great deal is lost in translation. Culture plays a quiet role in why the characters feel the way they do, but viewers lacking a familiarity with modern Japanese culture will no doubt experience a slight disconnect in regards to motivation. There's a bunch of storytelling here that's only visual in nature, and you really have to be paying attention to catch all of what is being said without being said.
The seasons of the year play a prominent role in the film, almost appearing as characters themselves. When the film first opens, spring is in full bloom, and it's the season in which the lion's share of Wakana's story arc takes place. Sentaro's story is in the summer, and at the end of the third act, Tokue's character development is finally revealed, in the autumn. It's almost elegant, as the seasons also correspond to the relative ages of the characters and their relationships to the world and themselves.
As with all foreign films, the pacing to Sweet Bean is different from most mainstream films. It's slow and meticulous, and it has to be. Each shot is carefully crafted to convey visual meaning and purpose. There are no throwaway scenes in this film.
Taken as a whole, it's difficult not to feel something from this film, and if you stick it out until the end, there's a concrete heartstrings payoff. Despite being semi-mired in a foreign culture's unspoken folkways, Sweet Bean is worth it. If nothing else, this film reminds "all of us that we want to live in a society where the sun shines."
Directed by Naomi Kawase
With Nagase, Kiki, Uchida