DW Griffith once complained that the ‘modern’ Hollywood movie (he was speaking in 1947, though the trend has not reversed since) lacked “the beauty of moving wind in the trees, the little movements in a beautiful flowing of the blossoms”. He might have been impressed by Sweet Bean, the new film by Naomi Kawase released on Blu-Ray by Eureka Masters of Cinema. It begins under a canopy of that most quintessentially Japanese flower, the cherry blossom, and the story’s chronology is measured out through seasonally changing leaves. The story, too, centres around a plant; the sweet bean of the title, whose preparation is a blind spot for the otherwise talented chef Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase).
Sentaro’s lacklustre pancakes are saved when a charming elderly lady, Tokue (Kirin Kiki) asks if his advertisement for helpers of all ages is open to seventy-six-year-olds. Tokue likes his cooking but is concerned by his use of shop-bought bean paste. She teaches him how to make it correctly in a bravura extended sequence where Kawase is equally attentive to the stages of cooking and the stages of Tokue coming out of her shell as she realises she has a real talent. This takes up much of the first half-hour of the film, and it’s so good, so gradual yet absorbing, that it could make a great short film in itself.
Once the recipe is perfected, there’s an awkward stretch where Kawase has to set up the rest of the film. It’s a very different story, one which probes a hidden injustice in Japanese society with delicacy and taste. There’s no doubt that the individual parts of Sweet Bean are up to scratch, but its narrative is too disjointed to sit easily with Kawase’s relaxed, observational style. If you can ride these shifts out, Sweet Bean is consistently tender and heartfelt; if you can’t, it might feel like a low-key foodie documentary has been invaded by soap-opera plot twists.
Kawase’s background is in documentary, and some of the strongest scenes in Sweet Bean are purely observational. In the middle of the film there’s a delightful montage of the titular red beans being grown and harvested, overlaid with a poetic voiceover. The intergenerational subject matter of the film also feels drawn from her documentary work, much of which – such as 1992’s Embracing and 1994’s Katatsumori – deal with her own relationships with her parents and grandparents. Her earlier work is not easy to find in the UK – 2014’s drama Still the Water is the only previous Region 2 release – and it’s possible that Sweet Bean’s higher profile is a result of her uncharacteristic decision to work with name actors.
Both of Sweet Bean’s leads will be familiar to fans of other directors, with Nagase having previously appeared in a key role in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, and Kiki being a regular collaborator with Hirokazu Kore-eda. It’s the latter director who casts the largest shadow over Sweet Bean, both in the tiny details – an early shot of a passing train recalling I Wish – and the general sense that a generation of Japanese directors are reconnecting with the small-scale, heartfelt neighbourhood stories of Ozu and Mizoguchi. Observers of Kawase’s earlier work might have expected her to follow in the footsteps of radical docufiction directors like Kazuo Hara or Shohei Imamura, but Sweet Bean sees her increasingly settling into a more traditional narrative format bolstered by infusions of documentary realism.
Narrative hurdles aside, it’s a style she seems confident and comfortable in. There isn’t a bad performance in Sweet Bean, and Tina Baz’s editing uses cutaways and establishing shots to create a rich sense of a whole busy world around the film’s characters. Even in the film’s more melodramatic moments, there’s a clear line of credibility Kawase won’t cross. I was particularly grateful that, unlike ninety per cent of food-based movies, the sweet bean has no real metaphorical significance. Kawase’s cinema is too humble and clever for that; her mission statement is spelt out by the title of her debut short, “I focus on that which interests me”. Take it or leave it.
- High-definition presentation on the Blu-ray
- Optional English subtitles
- A new, exclusive video interview with Naomi Kawase
- Theatrical trailer
- A 32-page booklet featuring a new essay on the film by critic Philip Kemp; an interview and statement from Kawase, and production images