Sweet Bean

Ageism - Compassion - Wisdom

Sweet Bean is a Japanese tale with a whole lotta heart

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There is so much I loved about this film – and not just the virtual delicious smell of japanese pancakes permeating the celluloid. The cinematography is luscious, detailed yet un-romanticised; the characters perfectly cast, and the story expertly and gently explores some pretty sensitive subjects.

The story takes place over a year inside a little pancake shop, run by grumpy owner Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagasi). He spends his days flipping golden pancakes and smudging them together with sweet bean paste to make ‘doriyaki’ for young giggling school girls and other passers by. One of those passers by is ’Tokue’ (Kirin Kiki) a 76 year old woman who seems a bit nutty yet very charming.

I immediately fell in love with Tokue.  She waves at the cherry blossom tree with her old gnarled hands and seems to breathe in nature and life like each moment is precious and curious. Spying the ‘help wanted’ sign, she makes a convincing case to Sentaro to let him hire her after she brings him some of her own sweet bean paste. “I’ve been making An for 50 years” she says matter of factly. Tokue eventually begins working for him at the shop making sweet bean paste from scratch.

At first, Sentaro scoffs at her time-intensive techniques, she talks to the beans and lets them sit for hours on end. “It would be rude to mix them straight away” she says, and settles in to wait a few hours for them to cool. Despite Sentaro’s skepticism, her recipe is a great success and business booms.

What I loved was the sheer joy we observed Tokue experiencing through working in the shop. There were literal “awws” coming from the audience as she delivered whispered lines to Sentaro like “This is fun” as she put stickers on the doriyaki bags as he flipped the pancakes. Not only did I believe she was having fun, I believed she was having the most fun she’d ever had in her life. I found myself thinking “if only I could find such joy in simple little tasks…”

It was this love I immediately had for Tokue that made it so heart breaking when she becomes the subject of some nasty gossip around the town.

By now, there’s a third wheel in this wee pancake party, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), a lonely school girl who hangs out at the shop often and gets given the “reject” doriyaki at the end of the day. Kyara and Tokue form a special bond, which is made all the more powerful when we begin to find out about Tokue’s past.

The film explores some important issues with a lot of compassion – respect for one’s elders knowledge and experience, prejudice and fear around disease and disability, ageism, the importance of patience, and joy in the little things in life. I found it refreshing to see a film that explored all of these things so gently and with a lot of humour along the way.

I left the cinema moved, humbled, and determined to try a real homemade doriyaki when I next visit Japan.

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About the Contributor

Claire Cowan

Claire is a composer of music for concert, film and television. She’s head of Auckland’s biggest band of musical hooligans- The Blackbird Ensemble. Her interests in the arts are broad and she likes to have her curious fingers in many pies at once. When she’s not writing music or words, or continuing her search for the best burger and poutine in town, you’ll find her whizzing by you on her bright orange electric bike, Tangerine.

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