Monday, March 14, 2016

Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean

Dorayaki is the favorite sweet treat of manga character Doraemon. Consisting of two pancakes stuffed with sweet bean paste (“an”), they resemble large Macarons (which in turn, are very different from macaroons). Sentaro has no taste for them, yet he manages a dorayaki stand. Of course, neither Sentaro or his two closest associates need to be told life is not fair. However, the experiences of septuagenarian Tokue will profoundly move him and their teen-aged friend. Food and natural beauty will provide some consolation in Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Sentaro is a quiet, solitary man. He rarely speaks to his customers, but he makes an exception in the case of Wakana. Unlike her shallow classmates, she will probably not be attending college. Instead, her neglectful mother expects her to start working fulltime. Work represents something entirely different for Tokue. She is willing to take half the wages Sentaro is offering for a part time assistant, but her age and scarred hands make him skeptical. However, when he tastes a batch of her home-made sweet bean paste all his reservations melt away.

Despite his reserve, Sentaro quickly warms to Tokue and their customers quickly warm to their greatly improved dorayaki. Unfortunately, their pleasant days together will not last. According to the owner of the dorayaki stand, to whom Sentaro. is deeply indebted, Tokue is a long-time resident of the quarantine center-turned assisted living facility for Hanson’s disease patients. That would be leprosy, so she naturally wants Tokue out. Sentaro will drag his feet, but he is employee just as much as she is.

Sweet Bean could well be Kawase’s best and most accessible film to date. There is still the hushed vibe, but the drama is acutely human. Frankly, Sweet Bean is a lot like Japan’s Oscar winner Departures, but the emotions it draws out are even subtler and more complex. Despite the relatively brief amount of time Tokue spends with “the Boss” and Wakana, the connections they forge are deep and meaningful.

Kirin Kiki is quite remarkable as Tokue. Earnest yet down to earth, she keeps the film from descending into maudlin melodrama. Her real life granddaughter Kyara Uchida is also soulful beyond her years. Yet it is Masatoshi Nagase (the coach in Kano) who really lowers the boom down the stretch. There are no fireworks in Sweet Bean, but the central trio play off each other perfectly.

All the thoughtful hallmarks of Kawase’s auteurist style are present in Sweet Bean, but none of her wind-rustling-through-leaves excesses. Granted, there are plenty of character establishing scenes that do not necessarily advance the narrative (as when Wakana reads to a little boy in a library), but those are the moments that really stick with viewers. Like Tokue’s bean paste, Sweet Bean is lovingly crafted and richly rewarding. Highly recommended for general audiences, it opens this Friday (3/18) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.