Theme Tuesday - Sweet Bean
For January, I will be exploring the works of Japanese female directors as part of my 2018 resolution to watch more films by female directors (more than fifty percent of films watched to be precise).
Naomi Kawase may be the most famous Japanese female director that I have encountered so far. Her works regularly screen at Cannes, much to the dismay of some people like Adam Cook at IndieWire. Against my better judgment, I read his review before watching the film (the power of clickbait titles!), and I went in expecting the worse.
Sweet Bean follows Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) , a weary-looking man who halfheartedly runs a shop that specializes in dorayaki (a pastry that is basically a small pancake filled with sweet red bean paste). An elderly woman named Tokue (Kirin Kiki) inquires as to the job opening at the shop, but Sentaro firmly rejects her, citing her old age and her crippled fingers. It turns out that Tokue can make an absolutely delectable sweet red bean paste, and Sentaro finally hires her. Developments soon arise that make it impossible for Tokue to keep her job. A young girl, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), hangs around the shop and comes to develop a relationship with Tokue as an escape from her depressing home life.
I can’t say that I can fault Cook for his views on this film. The very inoffensiveness of the film just went against his taste and, I guess, demand for more artistically bold and challenging work. However, I found the film to be lovely and gentle. Even when sad developments occur, they are not highlighted in melodramatic fashion. One of the best scenes has to be when Tokue shows Sentaro how exactly she makes her red bean paste. Kawase immerses us in Tokue’s work by engaging as many of our senses as we can: the tender touch with which Tokue handles every step, the steam curling off the just boiled beans, the careful attention to the texture of the paste.
Kawase also did a good job balancing the narratives of the three main characters. Even though the mystery of Tokue’s past is the driving force for the narrative, it does not overwhelm the film, thanks to Kirin Kiki’s gentle and warm presence. Kawase’s low-key approach and somewhat languid pace was the right one for this material. Though sometimes the character seem a little too Zen about their fates, its’ preferable to what this film could easily have been: a cheesy, overly manipulative underdog story.