Directed by Naomi Kawase
In selected UK cinemas 5 August
Japanese cinema is obsessed with food, and not just with eating well, but with the rituals of getting to the essence of a dish while preparing it. In Hirokazu Koreeda’s Umimachi Diary (Our Little Sister, 2015) a recipe for mackerel was more precious (and valuable) to inherit than a large trustfund. In Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean the pertinent dish is dorayaki, a sweet pancake filled with bean paste. School children and local folk come to Sentaro’s catering truck. He feeds them, and is happy if nobody asks about his somber grumpiness. One day an old lady called Tokue appears.
It turns out Tokue, who suffers from Hansen disease and is an outsider like Sentaro, knows the secret of making the most heavenly bean paste. The secret is of course all about patience and procedure, and so this beautiful film is at once a voyage for Sentaro to qualify for this procedure, as it is already the procedure itself. This is very much the way Naomi Kawase, who started with experimental, autobiographical videos, has framed her newly classicist approach to cinema: as an exercise to prepare for a spiritual revelation that is never anything different than the well executed exercise.
Like in the best films by Yasujiro Ozu (which Naomi Kawase updates for a more global audience) there is something like an epiphany at the end. But it is nothing too earth shaking, more like a blissful bite into a perfect dorayaki.