From director Naomi Kawase, Sweet Bean (2015, also widely released under its Japanese title An) is the story of a baker, Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), who runs a tiny dorayaki shop. His business gets an unexpected boost when Tokue (Kirin Kiki) comes into his life. She’s an elderly woman keen to work part-time in his shop, and manages to sway Sentaro into agreeing when he discovers she’s a master at preparing the titular sweet bean paste that goes into the middle of every dorayaki. Sweet Bean becomes a fairly straightforward drama in which its central characters search for meaning in their lives, all tangled up around the dorayaki shop, but it’s somewhat harder going and less heartwarming than the premise would suggest, dealing with some heavy themes of prejudice and obligation.
Dorayaki are at the core of the film and no small amount of screen time is devoted to covering their creation and generally making them look delicious. They’re traditional Japanese confections made by stacking two small pancakes with a layer of sweet red bean paste in between. As the film opens, Sentaro is turning out respectable dorayaki but has no passion for his craft. As he later confesses, he doesn’t even like his dorayaki. When Tokue approaches him looking for work, he’s reluctant to allow the woman, in her mid-70s, to join him. He keeps offering lower and lower pay, emphasises the hard labour involved, and generally tries to get rid of her. He only changes his mind when she persuades him to try the sweet bean paste she’s been preparing for decades. For Sentaro, it’s a revelation, and it not only reinvigorates his interest in his shop, but when Tokue begins working with him and together they put out dorayaki with her signature filling, sales boom.
The third major figure in the film is a teenage schoolgirl, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), who frequents Sentaro’s shop. She’s shy and perhaps a little ostracised, never taking part in the banter of the other schoolgirls who keep a constant, chattering commentary on what Sentaro’s doing. Nevertheless, she seems to have struck a chord with him, and he lets her take home the cast-off dorayaki pancakes – the ones too burned to go into the products he actually sells. She lives with her mother in a rented apartment, and through the film we get flashes of her life, few of which are particularly happy. In particular her mother – depicted as either immature or drinking too heavily or both – weighs heavily on Wakana. Her friendships with Sentaro and later Tokue become increasingly important – in fact, the fairly ambiguous storytelling in Sweet Bean had me misunderstanding the relationships for a large part of the film, and I assumed Wakana was actually Sentaro’s daughter. The bond that develops between them fits distinctly into the grizzled surrogate father-daughter motif that’s so common in film these days.
It’s impossible to discuss the the major turning point in the film without spoiling it, so consider skipping this paragraph if you want to save the surprise. Still with me? Sweet Bean takes an uncomfortable turn when the gossipy wife of the owner of Sentaro’s shop confronts him with the fact that Tokue’s deformed hands are due to her having been diagnosed with leprosy, and until the late ‘90s when Japan overturned its leprosy laws, confined to a sanatorium. By this point Sentaro’s bond with Tokue has grown strong and he has no desire to force her out of the shop, correctly noting that her leprosy would have been cured and she was non-contagious (and leprosy, of course, is not as contagious as popular belief would have it anyway). The owner’s wife and the general perception of a woman with leprosy working in his store eventually force Tokue away however. Throughout the film there is obviously a great weight on Sentaro that he does not fully explain for some time. As the film progresses, it’s slowly revealed that he owes money to the owner of the dorayaki store and is essentially working off his debt; when the owner’s wife wants Tokue gone, he is too deeply obligated to them to refuse.
Ultimately, Sweet Bean pulls together themes of discrimination, obligation, and Japan’s aging population in an interesting cocktail that is somewhat undercut by the oblique storytelling. Too often, the viewer is given only a brief flash of insight into the characters before time marches forward again. Despite the potentially fascinating premise, I was never able to get fully behind Sentaro, Tokue, or Wakana.
But now I really do want some dorayaki.
Sweet Bean / あん
Director: Naomi Kawase
Japanese Release Date: 30th May 2015
Version Watched: 113 min (Sky Cinema)