I must confess, despite having a big love for Japanese Cinema, I have never watched a film by the Cannes regular; Naomi Kawase till now. With the release of the 2017 Cannes Line-up, I have decided to finally watch one of her films in preparation for ‘Hikari’ Kawase’s film that will be screening at Cannes in competition in 2017.
The film focuses on a Dorayaki (Japanese Red Bean Pancake) shop owner, Sentaro (Played by Masatoshi Nagase) who encounters an elderly woman (Kirin Kiki) applying for a job to help out at her shop. While initially reluctant because of the elderly woman’s old age and her deformed hands, he decides to hire her when he tries her sweet red bean paste which is far superior to the pre-made paste which he uses.
Of course, in a movie where the title is called Sweet Bean, food plays a role of importance with there are many scenes in which we see the characters preparing food to be sold and served to the customers. The image of Sentaro delicately preparing the Dorayaki pancakes, mixing the batter and cooking the pancakes is repeated several times, placing emphasis on this almost ritualistic lifestyle that he does day after day to make a living. This behavior of repetition in preparing food that ordinary man, Sentaro does to earn his keep brings up questions of existentialism and place in the world, when he confesses to the elderly woman that he dislikes sweets and the products of his store.
Why is he continuing to work so hard to make food he dislikes? That is a question that can be easily answered through the character’s backstory which I shall refrain from spoiling. But, even so, I can provide the philosophical answer that the film implies with this character’s revelation. ‘Living a life doing what we want is something that not everyone can attain.’ That is a big theme of the film. And unlike many arthouse movies where observing a worldly truth is enough, ‘Sweet Bean’ goes further and provides answers of sorts to the issues of existing with the world.
A film dealing with the vague and big topic of human existentialism in the modern society is bound to have moments of indulgence. ‘Sweet Bean’ for one, commits the sin of nature and food porn, mostly keeping it to just a nice amount but at times, it steps over the line and goes into indulgence territory. Still, these moments fit the film’s theme and they are rather beautifully shot.
Speaking of cinematography, the film mostly uses a shallow depth of field and medium or close-up framing, with the occasional wide shots. While I would usually be rather taken aback by such an unnerving way of framing shots, as I very much prefer open-spaced wider framing in films, the close and focused framing does a service to the actors’ and actresses’ performance in the film which are wonderfully performed and thus distracted me from feeling unnerved by the many close shots. The close framing provides lends the characters a level of intimacy with the viewer and at the same time, it allows us to notice and see the subtle nuances in the wonderful performances. All of the key characters in the film are stand outs, especially Kirin Kiki’s and Masatoshi Nagase’s.
‘Sweet Bean’ however does commit a sin I conceive to be rather serious in cinema, which is sentimentality. While the film does not go to the overly melodramatic lengths of sentimentality that many lazy Hollywood Movies commit the sin of doing, that sweet, sentimentality has something about it that feels overly sweet and a little undeserved, perhaps it is because the characters (Kirin Kiki’s in particular) are in truth, rather stereotypical in their inner conflict despite the great performance and how well written they are.
Still, this is a great movie. The sentimentality despite the sweetness is nuanced and restrained, which does not distract too much from the overall mood and feel of the movie. This is a stand out piece of cinema, featuring beautiful and naturalistic images and great performances and also containing enough philosophical depth for anyone to take away from the film, regardless if they agree with it or not.