Sweet Bean: Naomi Kawase Hits the Middlebrow Sweet Spot

Sweet Bean

Sweet Bean
Directed by Naomi Kawase
Opens March 18 at Lincoln Plaza

At Cannes, a festival not known for its friendliness towards female directors, four of Japanese filmmaker Naomi Kawase’s eight films have played in competition and two have won awards. Oddly, her work has rarely screened in the US, even on the festival circuit, until now. (Her debut film, Suzaku, went straight from winning the Camera D’Or at Cannes to a one-night engagement at Anthology Film Archives in 1997.) Her eighth film, Sweet Bean, is the first to get commercial distribution here.

Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) sells sweet bean paste pancakes from a tiny bakery. The ex-con exists in a mental fog, but one day, 76-year-old Tokue (Kirin Kiki) responds to his Help Wanted ad. Although she has “crippled” hands with strange sores, she proves adept at making the paste which is the pancakes’ main ingredient. However, she has a secret, and Sentaro’s business starts to drop off when word of it gets out.

It’s easy to see why this film opened doors for Kawase. This is the kind of foreign film Sony Pictures Classics would have released ten years ago. It can appeal to foodies—one scene is a virtual lesson in making red bean paste—and anyone who revered their grandmother. (Kirin Kiki’s performance wrings maximum cuteness from Tokue.) The result is a pleasant ride, but one that feels awfully middlebrow. The first half is painfully genteel, although it must be said that Kawase’s light touch and complete lack of “edge” are somewhat refreshing in a contemporary Japanese cinema full of male directors interested in genre tropes, sex and violence.

Kawase’s style also helps distinguish her film—she generally keeps the camera near her actors in interiors, shooting them in close-ups and medium shots. The bright cinematography adds to the atmosphere as the seasons pass, emphasizing nature and focusing on colorful cherry blossoms and birds. Echoes of classic Japanese cinema resound all over Sweet Bean, but its tugs at the heartstrings feel calculated in a way that Ozu’s and Naruse’s never did. Hirokazu Kore-eda is the only one of Kawase’s contemporaries still making films like this, but I have to admit that he does it much better.

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