Director Naomi Kawase/2015
Street Date: August 9, 2016/Kino Lorber Screen Classics
Kino Lorber is releasing Naomi Kawase’s beautifully moving film Sweet Bean, based on Durian Sukegawa’s novel “An“, on DVD. The film follows the manager of a dorayaki pancake stand whose demeanor is completely opposite the sweetness of the red bean paste, called ‘An’ that fills his dorayaki. Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) works everyday meticulously crafting his pancakes with a consistent pride and exactness found in only the most disciplined of chefs. But despite his skill, Sentaro lacks any enthusiasm for his craft, or for his life.
Sentaro finds himself occupying a self-imposed exile on the fringes of his own life, merely existing. As good as his pancakes are, and as skillfully as he makes each one, the sweet bean paste that fills its center is lacking. The dessert, like its maker, has so much potential and yet is being held back from being all it can be. Despite his apathy, Sentaro’s good nature and heart for others continues to bleed through his dour exterior. He often is found giving reject dorayaki to a school girl named Wakana (Kyara Uchida) who is left alone much of the time by her mother, and who finds solace in this small bakery shop.
Wakana, like Sentaro, is not a person who is comfortable in her own skin. Despite her school mates stopping and eating at the shop, she is not really part of their group. Her best friend is her parakeet, who is not even allowed in her apartment building. She doesn’t have any direction, and is unsure if she will continue her education into high school. She asks for a job to fill her time, but is turned down by Sentaro who wants help, but who has trouble opening up to anyone from the outside.
Eventually, 76-year old Tokue (Kirin Kiki) comes wandering up to the shop window asking for a job. Sentaro almost immediately dismisses her given his doubts of her ability to stand long hours, lifting heaving pots of beans and water, and the like. She promises to return, and when she does, she is again rebuffed, but this time she brings Sentaro a gift. After she leaves, Sentaro discovers that she has brought her own recipe for sweet bean paste that is full of the flavor and consistency that Sentaro’s paste lacks. He is intrigued by this unique individual and agrees to take her on with a simple arrangement: She makes her paste, and he makes the pancakes. Soon his small shop is flourishing. Tokue begins to sweeten not just the paste, but the lives of Sentaro and Wakana. All is moving forward until Sentaro’s boss reveals that Tokue has an illness that will no longer allow for her to work at the shop. Sentaro discovers that Tokue, like himself, knows all about isolation, and is confounded that despite her past, she still sees the beauty of life.
For those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see, the long held exterior shots, the tight interior shots, and every conversation becomes a beautiful tapestry weaving these characters in and out of each other’s lives until none of them are the same as when we first met them.
Sweet Bean isn’t afraid to take a hard look at big subjects like ageism, and the reasons for why society regulates individuals to the margins. Naomi Kawase spends much of the film exploring these themes by weaving beautiful exterior shots that linger and hold the camera’s gaze whether its casting its focus on trees, streams, and the sky, with each frame infused with natural light. She then contrasts these shots with tight, dark interior shots of the cramped dorayaki stand, Wakana’s apartment, and even a local restaurant. This contrast is a reminder of the differences between Tokue’s optimism, and Sentaro’s grim apathy.
To truly draw out this contrast and lead her characters on their journey from the margins of society, Kawase must slow down the pace of the film to let you experience every moment of these characters journey. As Tokue demonstrates to Sentaro, making the bean paste right takes listening to the beans, hearing their journey as they become this sweet paste that will delight those who partake of it. Sweet Bean, as a film, is much the same. You must listen to the details, and take in each nuance. For those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see, the long held exterior shots, the tight interior shots, and every conversation becomes a beautiful tapestry weaving these characters in and out of each other’s lives until none of them are the same as when we first met them.
Kino Lorber has released this film on DVD with 2.35:1, 16×9 aspect ratio. The film is entirely in Japanese with optional English subtitles, and is presented in 5.1 surround sound. As far as bonus features, the DVD is light on content with only the film’s trailer and a short film from Naomi Kawase called Lies, which is in English and Japanese. Lies is also another interesting case study of a complex relationship revealed through the interview of a fashion designer and a magazine, with a translator to assist and facilitate the interview.
Lies is a welcome addition, but I found myself wanting to learn more about Sweet Bean and especially to hear more about Masatoshi Nagase, Kirin Kiki, and Kyara Uchida and how they brought the characters of Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana to life. Kyara Uchida is the real-life grand-daughter of Kirin Kiki, and all 3 actors were isolated by director Naomi Kawase before filming to give them the chance to develop these characters. Film segments covering some of this would have been wonderful. Durian Sukegawa wrote the character of Tokue, in his novel, with actress Kirin Kiki in mind, and following her performance, you can see why. Given Naomi Kawase’s documentary background, any behind the scenes footage, or a “making of” documentary would have been a beloved addition to this film.
Any complaints I have about this DVD are simply arising out of my desire to experience more of this beautiful tale that Naomi Kawase has brought to life with an amazingly talented cast. Kino Lorber is bringing a wonderful recipe of a film to the market that deserves to be shared with a larger audience that rarely gets to partake of Naomi Kawase’s simple, yet hopeful outlook on life, love, and the beauty all around us. Now with the release of Sweet Bean on DVD, we get to.