‘Sweet Bean’ a mild, tasty pleasure

Dorayaki is a red bean pancake filled with azuki red bean paste or custard. I first heard of the confection from the  Doraemon manga series. Finding pleasure in a job well done serves as the premise for Sweet Bean, a film of mild charm that competed in 2015’s Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Festival.

From the unyielding way in which the camera follows Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) down a flight of stairs and into his small shop, smoking endless cigarettes, the viewer is supposed to feel the weight of the years and the thousands of dorayaki he’s cooked over the years. He remains aloof from the crew of schoolgirls who hang out every afternoon for gossip and teasing. If director Naomi Kawase captures Sentaro’s devotion to duty, she also understands the requirements of duty – that is, Sentaro is proud of his work. Closeups of the golden an batter as it pours on the griddle are designed to provoke oohs from the audience. “Rejects” – those pancakes that are under- or overcooked – become handouts. Although not many other customers come, Sentaro still hangs a Help Wanted sign on the window, attracting the attention of regular Wakana (Kyara Uchida). Then Sentaro meets a smiling old woman named Tokue (Kirin Kiki). She doesn’t flinch from the proposed hourly rate: on the contrary, she says it’s fine with her. You have to wake up early, Sentaro tells her. Don’t worry! she chirps. She’s up with the birds, and without a phone! On her first day Tokue, who claims she’s cooked dorayaki for fifty years, is appalled by the fact that Sentaro buys packaged an. “An is the soul of dorayaki. How can you treat it so lightly?” she wonders in a tone of mild rebuke.

Thus begins Sweet Bean‘s centerpiece, during which Sentaro and his grandmotherly employee cook the best looking dorayaki ever presented onscreen while sharing their secrets. Look at the color of the water. Warm beans break easily. Kawase lavishes more closeups on suppurating red beans; often her setups convey a sensual intimacy, as if we were violating the arrangement between the beans and cooks. All food movies proceed in similar fashion; by nature they’re audience pleasers, beholden to the yum shot as Harlequin romances are to manly arms. But tension separates the good ones from the fare that inspires a kind of sated complacency. 1987’s marvelous Tampopo is the apex. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and Big Night (1996) come close. Babette’s Feast is mild. Like Water For Chocolate embarrasses me. When Kawase introduces discordant notes, she hopes to give her film the tang of chestnuts in dorayaki; instead, Sweet Bean‘s placid surface won’t stand for it. Noticing Tokue’s gnarled hands, Sentaro learns she survived not just leprosy but the isolation of a leper colony. “I’m partial to the end of things,” a character remarks. As the sadness of Sentaro’s life becomes clear, Kawase’s pillow shots of cherry blossoms assert their poetic logic: striving to make dorayaki as light as air and as delicate as those leaves in bloom has brought Tokue a measure of tranquility.

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