Despite being a Cannes favourite, Naomi Kawase is a marginal director both domestically and internationally. Sweet Bean shows why this needs to change.
Her talent is most evident when the elderly Tokue (Kirin Kiki) teaches dorayaki vendor Sentarô (Masatoshi Nagase) how to make bean paste. Like the rest of the film, it possesses an unhurried pace, which allows the audience to appreciate the work that goes into making food. This is enhanced by referring back to extreme closeups of the beans at various stages. Through her choice of shots, utilisation of closed space, and her actors’ naturalistic performances, Kawase crafts a scene with the same loving care that Tokue gives to cooking beans.
Food unites Kawase’s characters, who each come from a different generation. She then demonstrates how each character is uniquely marginalised by society. Kawase chooses however to focus on Tokue, whose alienation is historically rooted through the Leprosy Prevention Law of 1953. At the same time, Kawase wisely refuses to characterise Tokue solely through her illness, allowing Kiki to imbue her character with an inner life.
This is communicated directly in voiceover sections that teeter on syrupy pretension, but like the way her character makes bean paste, Kiki’s performance is pitched just right so that the emotions connect. Kawase’s nature shots during these scenes complement the dialogue well as they communicate theme and aren’t just for show. Director and actor therefore manage to tap into the transcendental qualities that define classical Japanese cinema.
The languid pace and sentimentality of such films make Sweet Bean an acquired taste, and Kawase is no stranger to criticism. Yet Sweet Bean is brimming with humanity, featuring characters that aren’t normally seen onscreen. Hopefully UK cinemas will see more of Kawase’s work in the future.
CAST: Kirin Kiki, Masatoshi Nagase, Kyara Uchida, Miki Mizuno
DIRECTOR: Naomi Kawase
WRITERS: Naomi Kawase (screenplay), Durian Sukegawa (based on the novel by)
SYNOPSIS: The manager of a pancake stall finds himself confronted with an odd but sympathetic elderly woman looking for work. A taste of her homemade bean jelly convinces him to hire her, which starts a relationship that is about much more than just street food.