Review: Sweet Bean

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DIR/WRI: Naomi Kawase • PRO: Kôichirô Fukushima, Yoshito Ohyama, Masa Sawada• DOP: Shigeki Akiyama • ED: Tina Baz • MUS: David Hadjadj • CAST: Kirin Kiki, Masatoshi Nagase, Kyara Uchida

If ever someone were to question what distinctly is “Japanese” about the nation’s mainstream dramas, Sweet Bean would undoubtedly be a prime example. A gentle piano score which accompanies shots of nature, urban architecture, cherry blossom trees and blue skies; detached, but sympathetic, men with complicated histories; amiably wise old women who suffer discrimination for either their age or disability; gossiping and garrulous schoolgirls that have a quiet introverted member among them who will befriend the protagonists; and a slow but calm pace which reduces story to a minimum in favour of exploring quiet character moments. Sweet Bean has it all, being the kind of film where other Japanese dramas spring to mind and an incessant feeling of déjà vu lingers through each scene.

Sweet Bean follows the story of Sentarô (Masatoshi Nagase), a stoic man who manages a dorayaki shop (essentially a Japanese treat involving two small pancakes pressed together and filled with a sweet paste made of Azuki red beans) in a small, neighbourly town. One day, an elderly woman named Tokue Yoshii (Kirin Kiki) asks if she might be employed, willing to work for a third of the wages Sentarô offers, but Sentarô initially refuses in light of her age. His feeling soon changes upon tasting Tokue’s secret homemade bean paste, and Sentarô hires her immediately, causing the newly improved dorayaki to become a popular confection for the townspeople. Their success remains brief, however, as a rumour spreads that Tokue suffers from Hansen’s Disease, residing in a quarantine section outside the town, and the owner of Sentarô’s dorayaki shop pressures him to remove Tokue or else fail to repay his sizeable debt to the owner.

Considering the narrative proceeds primarily through the dorayaki shop, it might be assumed that Sweet Bean is a “food porn” movie akin to Chocolat or the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. What separates Sweet Bean, however, from other films it bears resemblance to, is through the dorayaki itself, shot matter-of-factly rather than your typical fetishistic approach that often leaves audiences salivating in their seats. The dorayaki serves the characters in metaphorically revealing their emotional state. In fact, the entire film serves the characters in the same regard, so our attention is inexorably fixed on Tokue’s and Sentarô’s internal struggle and conflict with the world around them. Its strongest scenes are those which focus on Tokue’s and Sentarô’s burgeoning friendship, in often quiet and inconsequential moments which capture the intimate and gentle ambience the film strives to achieve.

It’s a shame then that the characters are derivative and clichéd. Despite the charming performances by both Masatoshi Nagase and Kirin Kiki especially, every beat of the film feels generic to the extent that the emotionally affective scenes deflate within the overall sense of contrivance. Tokue will spout mythical wisdom like “‘An’ (the bean paste) is the soul of dorayaki” or “cooking is like a first date. The couple work to get to know each other first”, like your typical food connoisseur in this kind of film. Supporting characters, such as the schoolgirl’s neglectful mother (indicated by beer, cigarettes, a phone, and implicit promiscuity) and the heartless owner who cares about reputation and money over her sense of humanity, feel ripped straight from other films and become artificial because of it. In particular, towards the beginning of the film, the quiet and introverted schoolgirl who befriends the protagonist is shown reading to a little boy in an abandoned train-converted-classroom. The anonymous little boy never returns nor does the strange setting of this scene, and the only excuse for its intrusive insert between scenes at the dorayaki shop is to establish something we already know: the schoolgirl is nice.

Even Sweet Bean’s subtext of Tokue embodying a maternal figure for Sentarô becomes forcefully driven home in case anyone hadn’t picked up on it by the film’s conclusion. This is harsh criticism for what is otherwise a gentle and pleasant film that does have an affective resonance because of the elevated performances of its leads, but it’s too reliant on being safe and inconsequential, opting for trite banality when it could have achieved something much more interesting.

In the very final scene, there is a sense of going against the grain and doing something unexpected, but the sound playing over the closing credits ruins any ambiguity it tried to suggest. Sweet Bean is a film that does its conventions right but gives nothing impactful as a result; being the kind of film you leave the screening without any thoughts or feelings towards it in any sense and are bound to forget you ever even saw it.

Michael O’Sullivan

113 minutes

Sweet Bean is released 5th August 2016

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