There are plenty of loving close-ups of food in “Sweet Bean,” but this tender drama is no mere foodie indulgence. Zeroing in on one particular dish, the Japanese confection dorayaki, the story uses simple ingredients as it brings together three lonely souls.
Writer-director Naomi Kawase, adapting Durian Sukegawa’s novel “An” — the Japanese word for the red bean paste that’s sandwiched between small pancakes to make dorayaki — is an unapologetically heart-tugging film. But its sentimentality is tempered by the elegant restraint of the fine lead performances.
Masatoshi Nagase, who had one of his first screen roles as a blues-loving tourist in Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train,” plays Sentaro, middle-aged and glum. He serves up sweets at his dorayaki shop but has no taste for them. That’s apparent to Tokue (Kirin Kiki), a charmingly odd 76-year-old who arrives at his counter determined to work with him. A sample of her homemade bean paste seals the deal.
Tokue brings a meditative calm to her cooking lessons, which epitomize “slow food.” Demonstrating to Sentaro — and the audience — how to properly soak, simmer and sweeten a batch of azuki beans, she reminds him that “it’s about heart” and opens Sentaro’s weary eyes to details he’d never considered.
The booming business that Tokue’s recipe generates is the least of her gifts. Twinkly but never cutesy, she draws out her new boss and one of his regular customers, a serious teenage girl named Wakana (Kyara Uchida, Kiki’s real-life granddaughter). In different ways they’re all social outcasts. The film never spells out the burden that Sentaro says he’ll take to his grave, but Nagase carries the hurt, and Sentaro’s gradual awakening, in a beautifully contained performance.
In a paradoxical twist, Wakana’s openhearted interest in Tokue inadvertently leads to the older woman’s ostracization. Tokue explains, without bitterness, that being marginalized is nothing new for her. Through her story this quiet, deeply felt film sheds a damning light on Japan’s official callousness, in earlier eras, toward certain segments of the population. Her resilient joy sheds its own transformative light.
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Kirin Kiki, Miki Mizuno, Kyara Uchida.
Director: Naomi Kawase.
Running time: 1:53.
Rated: No rating.
Note: In Japanese with English subtitles.