Not too sweet (Desserts or deserts: Part 2 of 4)
This film has an arthouse feel that makes me nostalgic for my college years. Young me would’ve watched this in an arthouse cinema, probably somewhere in Chicago, probably in the winter during awards season. I’d then rave about the film to friends over subsequent dinners: reactions would range between feigned interest to legitimate excitement at discussing art. Old me won’t try to convince anyone, at least in person, to check this out. Still, old me will certainly sigh at the loveliness of the rarely well-executed genre of indie film that tries to capture the depth of human emotional complexity through the lens of standard human mundanity.
Sweet Bean (2015) gently starts with the rising sun as Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) rises with it to get to work, baking in his small corner shop under the cherry blossoms. After using the promise of free food to bribe some school girls to leave, a young girl, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), enters and sits down, being treated to the day’s “rejects” (mediocre pancakes that didn’t make the dorayaki cut) in an exchange that gives us the idea this has happened many times before. Shortly after, a 76-year-old woman, Tokue (Kirin Kiki), approaches and asks Sentaro for a job. She’s willing to work for rock bottom wages (200 yen! In this economy!?) Sentaro just wants to smoke and get on with his daily/weekly/yearly grind, so he declines to hire Tokue. She wanders off serenely, telling him that she’ll call again. Wakana, overhearing the conversation, also inquires about the job. Sentaro isn’t interested in her either, as she’ll start high school soon.
Tokue returns the next day and asks again for a job and is told no again. She mentions that Sentaro’s pancakes are ok, but his “an” is lacking. (An is the Japanese title of the film and refers to the red bean paste commonly found in many desserts.) She leaves him a plastic container with her an. She leaves. He tries it. It’s amazing. When Sentaro sees her again, he compels her to work for him, preparing the aromatic, flavorful an. Her tears of happiness at finally being allowed to work in the shop are lovely, but the height of her emotions makes us wonder if there can’t be more to her reasons for seeking the job.
Gone are spring cherry blossoms; summer gets underway as the shop sells dorayaki with renewed vigor. Also gone are Sentaro’s days of rising with the sun and having a morning smoke on the roof; if he wants his an to match the sample Tokue made for him, he’ll need to wake up hours before the sun.
The first morning of preparations with Tokue on the job is when Sweet Bean begins to flex its love for food via tantalizing close-ups. Red azuki beans soak in cold water in the dark of the morning. Tokue examines them closely, straining them several times, pointing out the little things to look for: “Pretty soon now, the scent of the steam has changed.” The kind of education you can only get from a master. By the end of the sequence, when the fresh bean paste is glopping into the pan to cool, you will be woken from your daydream about starting your own dorayaki shop, feeling hungry. Sentaro’s deep, earthy “Ohhhhhhh” as they hit the pan is the sound of pure satisfaction.
Sweet Bean is a movie that can adeptly take on meaning based on one’s own experience. A younger viewer might see the slow creeping trap of unplanned middle age. An older viewer might see the cherry blossoms. A middle-aged viewer might see the wise old genius experiencing a touch of diminished hubris when they try to perform the task they thought was less critical to the process: it’s more complicated than they thought. Many viewers will see that despite the problems we all face, nothing beats a treat, as a treat.
Competing at Cannes in the 2015 Un Certain Regard category, Sweet Bean is the kind of movie that might make you feel like you’re back at the college-town arthouse cinema, taking a flyer on whatever non-mainstream film is playing. You’d be lucky to end up watching a movie like this, a reminder that life is short and worth enjoying. Like dessert.