An (re-named Sweet Bean for some markets) is a happy-sad, meditative, rather slight little film with a gentle and ultimately positive take on life and how to live it.
Dorayaki is a Japanese snack comprising two cakey pancakes sandwiching a sweet adzuki bean paste. The paste, known as an, is a relatively simple concoction, but there’s an art to getting it just right that apparently takes many years to perfect. According to Google-san, some artisan confectioners devote their lives to fine-tuning their an.
Morose middle-aged Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) runs a little dorayaki stall, but is no artisan – his an is a bland commercial canned product that he buys in bulk. He cares little for dorayaki or the stall, which he mans out of financial obligation – he is working off a debt to the stall owner. His attitude is reflected in his meagre clientele, which mostly comprises a group of schoolgirls who make fun of his grim demeanour.
One morning an elderly woman, Tokue (beautifully played by Kirin Kiki), rolls up seeking employment. Sentaro is initially reluctant, but she wins him over with a sample of her delicious an and sets about mentoring him. The secrets she shares are less to do with technique than intuition. She is more mystic than cook, urging him to respect and listen to the beans, and be mindful of every aspect of their journey from the field to the pot.
Before long there is a daily queue of eager clientele lining up for their dorayaki before work. However, Tokue is harbouring a shocking secret, which gets out. Overnight, the customers disappear, as does she.
At this point, the film takes a turn for the philosophical. The dorayaki stall narrative is all but abandoned for ruminations on life’s purpose, on finding one’s path, on being happy. The agents of these ruminations are Sentaro, whom we discover has a dark past that keeps him trapped in a present not of his choosing, one of his customers, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), whose underprivileged background threatens to cut short her school education, and of course Tokue, whom they track down out of concern to a isolated sanatorium at which she has spent most of her life.
The abrupt tonal and narrative shift feels a bit forced, as if writer/director Naomi Kawase is trying to retrospectively fuse two films into one, having had a change of mind part way through about the direction she is pursuing. As the work progresses it tips over into sentimentality, ultimately leading to a happy/sad ending that is all too neat but quietly moving nevertheless.
It’s easy to go with, due in large part to the endearing qualities of the Tokue character. More than a sweet little old lady, she has wisdom borne of suffering whereby she resolves to make the best of her lot. It’s not such a great leap of faith to accept that the lives of those she touches – Sentaro and Wakana – might change for the better in the ways they do as a result of the example she sets.
Indeed, her values infuse the film itself, which features numerous lovely, lingering shots of cherry trees – what else? – in full bloom, and is suffused with a gentle, meditative quality. Viewers used to a diet of high-cal Hollywood fare may respond with some impatience, but slow down and accept this modest and rather slight little flick on its own terms, and you’ll probably feel lighter for the experience.
Me? I’m off to chase down some adzuki beans.
Movie website: www.kinolorber.com/film.php?id=2265
Australian release date: Thu 28 April (at Luna Palace Cinemas in Perth)
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives