The Film (4/5)
SWEET BEAN (2015, aka: AN) tells the story of a troubled cook named Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) who runs a small dorayaki (red bean pancakes) shop. Business is slow and his red bean paste isn’t the tastiest in town. Looking for a part-time helper, Sentaro puts up a help wanted sign. Sentaro is surprised when an odd 76- year old woman named Tokue (Kirin Kiki) asks for the position. At first turning her down, Sentaro finally hires her, when he tries her own special kind of An (the sweet red bean paste). Once hired, customers love the new sweet treat and business increases overnight. As the two form a friendship, Sentaro starts to see life in a new way.
SWEET BEAN is a refreshing and simple story. Director Naomi Kawase, turns what could be a dull or overly depressing tale, into an uplifting journey to better one’s life and put aside prejudice. The movie has a running theme of prejudice and trying to find acceptance. Tokue is affected by leprosy and rumors start once some customers notice her deformed hands and arms. Tensions rise as Sentaro’s boss tries to order him to fire Tokue. Tokue on the other hand, stays strong and becomes the film’s emotional center. All the characters are at first dismiss the 76-old woman, either because of her disease or her age. What’s touching is how the characters change their ways, and not only give Tokue acceptance, but they find their own, like Sentaro starting a new job.
The movie is also quiet and soothing. The poetic use of trees and wind set up a calming experience. The movie also includes some excellent cinematography with simple but effective composition and framing. Every scene includes some shots that could be perfect paintings. One strong comparison could be made to the classical Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (FLOATING WEEDS, GOOD MORNING) who spaced out scenes with picturesque placement of objects to set up a mood. On a performance level, both leads deliver award worthy jobs. Kirin Kiki (TORA-SAN HIS TENDER LOVE, PISTOL OPERA) goes through a wide range of emotions. Her timing is perfect for some of the dry humor and the emotional intensity in some scenes is truly heart breaking. Masatoshi Nagase (Jim Jarmusch’s MYSTERY TRAIN, SUICIDE CLUB) is quiet and brooding but goes through a big character arch that leaves the film on an inspiring note.
Audio/ Video (4.5/5)
This Region B Blu-ray includes two different Japanese language tracks. First up is the DTS-HD Master Audio Track, which is smooth and clear. No background hiss or audio defects. The sound mix is marvelous, with some of the loveliest sounding wind through the trees scenes and the rattle of beans in a bag is almost like music to the ears. The second track is the LPCM 2.0 Channel version, which is slightly softer. The movie comes with easy to read English subtitles with white text.
SWEET BEAN comes with a 1080p HD transfer, and the picture is outstanding with only a few minor issues. Some of the slightly out of focus shots are too blurry and messy. But other than this minor setback, the movie simply shines. The black levels are well balanced and the colors pop off the screen. The close-ups of the cooking beans are so clean; you can almost taste the food.
*Also included is the Region 2 DVD version.
The main extra feature is an interview with Director Naomi Kawase. Kawase is soft spoken, but covers a wide range of questions including her references and the origin of the script. The English subtitled trailer is also here. Rounding out the set is a 32-page booklet of Liner notes, which contains an essay by critic Philp Kemp, a different interview from Kawase, A statement on the movie by Kawase, and plenty of production stills.
SWEET BEAN gets a near pitch perfect release in the Masters of Cinema series. This light and empowering movie, makes Naomi Kawase a director to keep an eye out for. SWEET BEAN is well crafted like a great meal. Highly Recommended.