Reviews - Sweet Bean
Reviewed By Vaughan Ames
This was the first Japanese film the club has opened with, but I doubt it will be the last: we try to open with a lighter film to get everyone in the mood (for the heavier films which, I assure you, you can look forward to as always!). 'Sweet Bean' filled this 'lighter' slot perfectly, whilst being both beautiful and thought-provoking at the same time.
Japanese art films are usually slow, with small facial expressions and inconsequential events indicating the way forward for the plot, rather than big bangs and explosions. Our film was no exception. We first meet Sentaro, an obviously bored, uninspired seller of sweet bean pancakes (dorayaki); he can't wait to get rid of his (very few) customers some of whom openly laugh at him for never smiling. As the film continues we will find out he isn't just bored, but trapped into the job he hates by past actions.
Then the inconsequential event happens: a very old lady arrives at his counter asking if there really is no age limit for the job he is advertising. Little does he realise the effect she will have on his life. After a couple of failed attempts to get him to employ a 76 year old woman, she leaves him a sample of her sweet bean sauce. Once he finally gets round to trying it, the look on his face tells you something big has happened. He soon tells his best customer, Wakana, that the sauce both tastes and smells fantastic; he can no longer resist employing the old lady - Tokue.
One of the best scenes follows, as we watch Tokue spending hours making the sauce, telling Sentaro how he must "listen to the story of the beans. It would be rude to hurry them"; this is, we realise, a spiritual story, almost a fairy story. Where has Tokue come from? Why is Sentaro so enraptured by her?
Soon the locals are queueing to buy the new doryaki – it is not just Sentaro who can tell the difference. BUT... we have seen that Tokue's hands are very deformed and the customers notice too... has she got leprosy..? The owner of the stall insists Sentaro must sack her, but he ignores the order. The money is now flowing in but, more importantly Sentaro is beginning to look happier. What can he do? (Unlike one of the audience, he didn't think of buying her gloves!).
Eventually the crowds stop coming and he has to let Tokue go. Soon he and Wakana visit Tokue in her home (we are told this used to be a quarantined home till very recently; there are implications that the Japanese still can't bear leprosy around them). They are given more wonderful cooking from both Tokue and her friend, and Tokue goes away inspired to try to develop a new recipe for 'salted beans'.
The film ends with Tokue dying, but leaving Sentaro a taped message explaining that "we all have a roll in life" and, whilst he is upset at her death, he – and we, the audience – are left with a feeling that life is beautiful. Has Sentaro been given a reason to forgive himself for past troubles? We leave him apparently selling (or giving away..?) Dorayaki from a street stall: instead of hating his way of making a living, he has grown to love it...
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