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Sweet Bean (Review)

by Holly W 3 years ago in review
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A Naomi Kawase film

Sweet Bean, a seven-time nominated film with ranges of ratings from 7.3/10-9.8/10, as well as 4/5 stars given by critics and up to 5/5 stars by normal viewers, is a film that not many have seen outside of Japan, but is one of director Naomi Kawase’s most well-received films, besides Still the Water and Suzaku. Sweet Bean, a tale of unlikely friendships and patience, materialized over a delectable Japanese sweet, formed from bean paste and pancakes (Dorayaki), with an underlying story that gives way to an insight of a disconcerting piece of Japan’s past, takes its viewers on a simultaneously heartwarming yet heart-wrenchingly emotional an hour and 53 minute excursion. Directed by Naomi Kawase, a four-time Palme d’Or competitor with her visually beautiful films that often have an underlying message on the unspoken bonds made between man and his environment, Sweet Bean (also known as “An”) does just that, but with food serving in nature’s place.

When borderline hikikomori (a person who avoids social contant), middle-aged, Dorayaki shop vendor Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), whom lacks the usual sweet tooth accompanied by those who work within that field of business, is approached by an adamantly-eager-to-work and lively, elderly, 76-year-old woman named Tokue (Kirin Kiki), who has specialized cooking the specific dish for over 50 years, he is, at first, obstinate in his refusal to hire her.

Tokue, being the determined, lovable woman that she is, doesn’t give up though; and, upon giving Sentaro a sample of her homemade bean-paste after her second visit (as well as Sentaro being persuaded to hire her from a loyal customer, junior high schoolgirl Wakana (Kyara Uchida), over dinner one night), Sentaro caves in and allows Tokue to begin working at the shop with him.

Upon being hired, Tokue scolds Sentaro for his poor choice in ordering bean paste in bulk, as well as his ignorance of the importance of the very substance to the dish and how it should be handled properly with care, which leads her to retraining him on how to make Dorayaki from scratch. The new Dorayaki becomes an instant hit with customers and the shop is soon busy with fulfilling people’s orders, as compared to the nearly deserted shop that it had once been before Tokue stepped in to help. Everything seems to be looking up for the trio until the shop owner takes interest in knowing where the newly hired staff personnel resides after hearing rumors from friends. Sentaro gives her the information of where Tokue resides, which causes the shop owner to order him to fire her immediately due to the stigma pushed upon those living with disease; in Tokue’s case, Leprosy (cue the disconcerting piece of Japan’s past aspect of the film).

Tokue leaves on her own to return to the sanatorium where she resided before Sentaro can fire her, and from there viewers watch as Sentaro and Wakana chose to maintain their friendship with the ailing Tokue and visit her at her residence.

Upon learning to trust Tokue and see the benefits of her friendship, Sentaro writes her a letter informing her of hardships he’s faced in life that he has failed to tell anyone beforehand; however, it is found to be in vain when he and Wakana seek to visit Tokue again, only to be informed that she had passed away three days prior. After hearing the devastating news, the pair receive her cooking ware as gifts, along with a recorded message from Tokue to pay attention to nature and the ways of things that make life happier. (Tissues, anyone?) The remainder of the film shows Sentaro and Wakana visiting Tokue’s grave before the film pans to a future time where Sentaro is happily working at a "street-cart" selling his Dorayakis to people in a park.

One theme that evidently appears within the Sweet Bean film is that of belonging. Most could argue that the theme of consumption could fit into this as well, but looking into the deeper context of the story line for Sweet Bean, the theme of belonging perhaps fits best. Due to the intricate backstories of each character and because of the storyline focusing around Dorayaki, this probably comes as no surprise to anyone.

Beginning with Sentaro, viewers learn that this character has been fighting to overcome the silence of keeping his past to himself, gaining a sense of belonging through finally telling someone about his past. He does this during a scene near the end of the film, when Kawase shoots a scene focusing on a shot with Sentaro facing away from the camera, facing the sunset on a "balcony"/walkway to his apartment, followed by a close-up shot of him smoking, then another close-up of him making Dorayaki alone all while sonorous music is played in the background. Sentaro narrates a piece of his past where he had gone to jail over a fight at a bar that he had previously worked at before he became a Dorayaki vendor.

Wakana’s character and her struggle to find her sense of belonging comes next when we learn of her struggle to determine where she will go to high school while dealing with a neglectful mother (which is filmed in a house that is kept rather dark and shabby). Her mother is the main cause for her choosing to run away from home.

The lack of sense of belonging dealt by Tokue, in the sense that she should be kept away from society due to stigmas and assumptions made in the past that would restrict those whom are ill with leprosy to reside in the city, may not be as drastic since she has otherwise come to terms with the way she would live her life. The sense of it felt from the other two characters gives the viewers a visionary tale of what one may struggle with regardless of age, restrictions, experience, or status held in life.

Kawase’s use of briefly applying the characters' backstories into the movie rather than panning the film-time to add more detail into each backstory is effective since it guarantees that each character doesn’t seem one-dimensional, but also aren’t so overtly focused upon that one would lose interest in the overall storyline of the film. The briefness of the backstories is also effective since it gives the film more time to focus on topics that viewers feel are more important (like the nearly step-by-step process of how to make Dorayaki), as well as keeping viewer’s interest of the characters due to their 10/90 percent ratio of background histories, rather than overdoing insights to their backgrounds like most other films do.

Kawase is well known for installing deeper meaning into her films. They are nothing to take lightly, despite the pleasurably depicted cinematography and storylines that her films have to offer.

In Sweet Bean, viewers learn of the deeper meaning of accepting the stigmas one who is disabled or carries a disease (in Japan) faces, but how they can still form friendships and teach others to look at the brighter side of situations that life throws at you. Kawase’s installment of this theme was developed to teach those who view this masterful piece of work. Despite such stigmas or odds, one can always overcome their hardships, as well as learn where their sense of belonging stands in this harsh world.

Whether you are a food junky, want to see a movie with a lighthearted character that’s bound to make your heart grow 10 times larger, are a deep thinker who wants a story with meaning under the surface of its plot, or if you’re feeling particularly emo and want your heart to feel like it’s been torn out of your chest after the roller-coaster ride of emotions this film has to throw at you, Sweet Bean has all that to offer. Go and check it out when you have a free minute (or two hours, more specifically), and enjoy one of Kawase’s best received films to this day.

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Holly W

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