When film lovers are fortunate, the simplest story in the hands of a masterful director results in a memorable experience. And when the plot revolves around food, our senses can engage more fully as they do in Japanese director Naomi Kawase's Sweet Bean. The confection at the heart of a poignant encounter between joyless Sentaro and 76-year-old Tokue is Dorayaki.
Made by placing a sweet red bean paste between two small pancakes, the traditional, much-loved Dorayaki is made daily at Sentaro's small bakery. But his an, the bean paste, lacks appeal until Tokue answers manager Sentaro's ad for part-time help and teaches him to listen to the beans. She explains that they've come a long way from the fields and it would be an insult to cook them right away. They have to get used to the sweetness that she summons from them. A beautiful partnership blossoms with a needy teenage girl, Wakana, a regular customer with her own touching story.
Sweet Bean is no fairy tale, and unexpected revelations add layers of emotional complexity and metaphorical suggestions. But the film is a heartwarming, albeit bittersweet, experience. Credit first goes to the wonderful Kirin Kiki as Tokue. An actress with over a hundred credits, she melted my heart in her first appearance at the bakery and never wavered in her appeal, a mesmerizing presence. As Sentaro, Masatoshi Nagase offers a striking counterpoint to Tokue, and all the supporting actors give accomplished performances.
Based on Durian Sukegawa's novel, director Kawase's screenplay teases out meaningful interaction with no clutter. The visual appeal, suggested aromas, and meticulous preparation leading to a scrumptious final product made my mouth water. Sweet Bean joins the wonderful Tampopo and Jiri Dreams of Sushi as a story centered on food but celebrating the human connections that truly nourish. Reminded of this, senses stimulated, I appreciated my subsequent meals with friends paying more attention to the entire experience. Sometimes a child leads the way, and sometimes a 76-year-old woman does as in Sweet Bean.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Sweet Bean screens as part of Webster University's Film Series at the Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, May 20 through Sunday, May 22 at 8:00 each evening.