Dorayaki is a type of Japanese pancake in which two patties are sandwiched around sweetened azuki beans. The confection is of central importance in Sweet Bean – or An in its native Japan – a lovely, affecting tale of friendship between a mysterious septuagenarian and a solitary pancake chef.
The older party is Tokue (the charming Kirin Kiki), a woman who turns up at a pancake booth looking for work. Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase, best known to western audiences s the young Japanese rocker from Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train), the establishment's lonely proprietor, is not so sure: the applicant is 76 years old and has deformed hands. But then he tastes her homemade red bean paste and is bowled over.
A long sequence, beautifully shot and acted, demonstrates Tokue’s cooking secrets. Unsurprisingly this eccentric woman, who waves at lampposts and admires how the trees move their arms, coos over the beans like old friends. When she adds the sugar she leaves the mixture to sit for two hours because: “It’s like a first date.”
Sentaro, we learn, never wanted to make dorayaki but his bean-making employee makes the enterprise more bearable and considerably more profitable. A secret history has brought him here, just as Tokue’s past is shrouded in mystery. Revelations ensue, but slowly and delicately, in keeping with the film’s sweet-temperament.
Japanese director Naomi Kawase has long been a favourite on the film festival circuit but this accessible, moving picture ought to reach a wider audience. (It was the opening film at Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year.)
This film is unabashedly sentimental and defined by themes that might, in other movies, seem cornier and syrupier than a bowl of Frosties: find your own path, it's never too late, all things are connected. Sweet Bean's gentle, quiet drama shares DNA with the work of Kawase's compatriot, Hirokazu Koreeda. Sweet by name, sweet by nature.