Sweet dreams are made of this in Ja­pan

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - TARA BRADY

SWEET BEAN

★★★★

Di­rected by Naomi Kawase Star­ring Kirin Kiki, Masatoshi Na­gase, Kyara Uchida Club, se­lect venues, 113mins

Do­rayaki is a type of Ja­panese pan­cake in which two pat­ties are sand­wiched around sweet­ened azuki beans. The con­fec­tion is of cen­tral im­por­tance in Sweet Bean – or An in its native Ja­pan – a lovely, af­fect­ing tale of friend­ship be­tween a mys­te­ri­ous sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian and a soli­tary pan­cake chef.

The older party is Tokue (the charm­ing Kirin Kiki), a woman who turns up at a pan­cake booth look­ing for work. Sen­taro (Masatoshi Na­gase, best known to western au­di­ences s the young Ja­panese rocker from Jim Jar­musch’s Mys­tery Train), the es­tab­lish­ment’s lonely pro­pri­etor, is not so sure: the ap­pli­cant is 76 years old and has de­formed hands. But then he tastes her home­made red bean paste and is bowled over.

A long se­quence, beau­ti­fully shot and acted, demon­strates Tokue’s cook­ing se­crets. Un­sur­pris­ingly this ec­cen­tric woman, who waves at lamp­posts and ad­mires how the trees move their arms, coos over the beans like old friends. When she adds the sugar she leaves the mix­ture to sit for two hours be­cause: “It’s like a first date.”

Sen­taro, we learn, never wanted to make do­rayaki but his bean-mak­ing em­ployee makes the en­ter­prise more bear­able and con­sid­er­ably more prof­itable. A se­cret his­tory has brought him here, just as Tokue’s past is shrouded in mys­tery. Rev­e­la­tions en­sue, but slowly and del­i­cately, in keep­ing with the film’s sweet-tem­per­a­ment.

Ja­panese di­rec­tor Naomi Kawase has long been a favourite on the film festival cir­cuit but this ac­ces­si­ble, mov­ing pic­ture ought to reach a wider au­di­ence. (It was the open­ing film at Un Cer­tain Re­gard at Cannes last year.)

This film is un­abashedly sen­ti­men­tal and de­fined by themes that might, in other movies, seem cornier and syrupier than a bowl of Frosties: find your own path, it’s never too late, all things are con­nected. Sweet Bean’s gen­tle, quiet drama shares DNA with the work of Kawase’s com­pa­triot, Hirokazu Koreeda. Sweet by name, sweet by na­ture.

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