Sweet Bean (2015) has to be one of my recent favourite films (another being Zootopia). The Japanese name is “An” which literally means sweet red-bean paste. I personally like its Japanese name more as it better accentuates the minimalistic aesthetics of the film and adds an enigmatic air to it. We are so accustomed to being attracted to unknown things; they just seem to be able to excite our curiosity a little more. The film is a tale of “An”-making, or at least, it is the motivation for a lot of character development. It is a symbol, a representation of the quiet philosophy of profound joys in simple things.
When the lonesome Sentaro, a dorayaki vendor and maker, not entirely successful with the business—partly due to his indifference, partly due to the mediocre dorayaki he makes—is bored by the mundane routine of his life, 76-year-old Tokue, an eccentric old lady who enjoys the play of light flittering through the marshmallowy cherry blossom, comes to his store and asks for work. Sentaro, stealing glances at the anonymous lady moving limply, with a slowness accumulated for three quarters of a century, replies hesitantly that the work is not simple. He is hoping Tokue would take the hint. Instead, after a few days, Tokue comes back with a box of home-made “An” for Sentaro to try. Without explaining, Tokue just takes off, basking in the soft sound of trees and wind. Sentaro tastes the paste and is surprised by the rich flavour, and in his own composed way he is moved by a sweetness he does not know what to make of yet. Sentaro realizes Tokue’s “An” is exactly what his dorayaki is lacking. And perhaps in the back of his mind, he also knows Tokue’s sincerely appreciation for simple things is the cure to his feeling lost and his unspeakable past. Sentaro, naturally, hires Touke. While making “An”, Tokue asks Sentaro to listen for the stories the beans tell. Tokue painstakingly goes through the nearly ritualistic process of the cooking of red-beans as though she is making art. The new dorayaki gains a name and is spread across the community. At the compliment of his customers, Sentaro smiles, and a shy confidence hides behind that smile. For the first time in a long time, he feels he is doing something right. However, their success is not long lived. Tokue has been harbouring her own painful secret: she has a disease that deems her unsuitable for the society. She is forced to return to her life of an involuntary solitude. The story goes on, and Tokue eventually dies. Sentaro takes Tokue’s death hard; her absence was intensified by how she has inspired and encouraged him in inexplicable ways. The film ends on a hopeful note, though. After Tokue’s departure, Sentaro wakes up from his languorous life, and finally gathers the strength, and the necessary reason to accept and appreciate the life he chooses to lead.
There is nothing unexpected about the film, but I am glad, even thankful, I took the time to watch it. It was not the story itself that I drew my attention to; rather, it was the narrative the director made of it that interested me. In her gentle and charming way, Naomi Kawase created a story about human connection, isolation and the inter-dependency of the two. Had Tokue not lived a solitary life, marginalized at the outskirt of society, she would not have the sincerity she holds towards everything she comes into contact with. Every connection is something rare, something out of ordinary: the mid-day sunbeam falling through green leaves, the wind blowing gently at the nape of her neck, the simple details of making red-bean paste, and the quiet time spent with Sentaro. To connect, one must first learn to be alone. This echoes with the Japanese concept of “Ma” (間) – the void between all things. Sometimes it is the pauses in a conversation that made it meaningful. Sometimes it is in the hollow of our soul within which we allow meaningful connection to happen. Sometimes, it is the common lonesome that makes two people connect, like Sentaro and Tokue.
I absolutely adored the film. It is one of those films where you might not remember the exact details of the plot but it leaves you in wordless contemplation that lasts long after you leave the theatre. Some viewers critique it being too “sentimental”, that the montage of cherry blossoms seems irrelevant or incomprehensible. Granted Japanese films are usually less emotionally accessible to untrained eyes. Lacking is the explicit expression of feelings and emotions. Japanese films are always very sentimental but subtly. Oftentimes, Japanese filmmakers are depicting a feeling, a sensation, something ineffable through images of the mundane, and the ordinary – a special kind of realism. They are symbols that point at a deeper personal sentimentality: the after rain smell, a cloudy day in autumn, the floor-to-ceiling stacks of books, a dorayaki and its red-bean paste. We cannot experience these sentiments in ways other than watching the events that incur them slowly unfold before us. So you have to search within yourself how these things make you feel, and you will find the most honest feeling within yourself, for it is you who feels what is to be felt.