The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw has called An (Sweet Bean) ‘insipid’ here and though I rarely say it; ignore him. This is a lovely little film with much to admire.
It’s easy to see how, in the hands of an English speaking director (OK, OK, a Hollywood director to be precise), this film would be awful and insipid: a baker, known as Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) who runs a pancake stall in the suburbs is floundering until a little old lady (Tokue, played by Kirin Kiki) pops up with a great recipe to rescue the day. Imagine all that wonderful slice of life drama transported from Asia to America and you can just hear all those orchestral strings coming in and out at all those precise emotive moments telling us how and when to be sad, happy, angry, confused.
Thankfully, other than one song, An stays well clear of this type of manipulation. It wears it’s heart quite comfortably on it’s sleeve. Kawase often ventures into these close collision course films with her protagonists struggling with nothing more complex than daily life and daily relationships (see any of her films but in particular The Mourning Forest, Still the Water and Hanezu). Much like Japanese cuisine whereby a chef often spends decades perfecting his particular craft, be it sushi or ramen, etc – Kawase is the master of those close knit personal complexities, honing that tiny microcosm and constantly putting it under the microscope, turning and twisting it, perfecting it over the last 24 years.
This is a beautiful film. I called it ‘little’ earlier but that’s really only a nod to it’s concentrated narrative. Kawase has much to say of the small wonders of daily life, focusing on character development and using her peripheral/secondary players to brilliant effect.
Yes sure it may be a little sugary at times (when it comes to Tokue relating the azaki beans journey from birth to pancake for instance), but it’s a whimsy I admired. It fitted. It wasn’t a strain to listen to or sit through.
But then there’s a scene in the old folks home with the four of them sitting at the table when Sentaro – usually a stolid stone-faced man – gradually crumbles, and its an absolute masterclass in direction. Kawase has got what it takes to one day direct that masterpiece she’ll be remembered for. It’s only a matter of time before she catches up with her contemporary Hirokazu Koreeda.
An (Sweet Bean) is on limited release now