SWEET BEAN is a deeply affecting tale of finding happiness by finding meaning. After watching this charmer, you might be tempted to try your own hand in creating a dorayaki, the pancake stuffed with sweet bean filling around which the story of three lonely people revolves. In fact, I defy you to resist.
Cherry blossoms and the bright moon figure prominently in this story, and both are on display when we meet Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase). He’s the taciturn manager/cook at a tiny dorayaki shop, where he gives away bags of his wares to giggling schoolgirls as an incentive to leave, and where he gives bags of the dorayaki irregulars to Wakane (Kyara Uchida), the lonely schoolgirl who is the closest thing he has to a friend. Into their lives drops Tokue (Kirin Kiki), a determined septuagenarian with crippled hands and an ebullient spirit. Her dream has been to work in a shop like Sentaro’s and she won’t take no for an answer. After an initial rebuff, she shows up with a batch of her home-made bean filling, and whatever doubts Sentaro had disappear with the first taste.
Each character has his or her own secret sorrow, but filmmaker Naomi Kawase is in no hurry to reveal them. Instead she offers us a finely observed character study of how people cope: Sentaro’s gruffness, Wakane’s palpable sadness, and, in contrast, the bottomless well of happiness Tokue has at being able to rise before dawn, and spend hours creating a delicacy that takes the neighborhood by storm. When the secrets are revealed, they are all the more poignant, the characters all the more worthy of our empathy, particularly Sentaro, whose brush with Tokue becomes a wake-up call sent from fate itself as she patiently tutors him in more than cooking.
The joy in watching Tokue cook is seeing her delight in the process of transforming adzuki into magic, and in bringing Sentaro back to life. She is a serenely content zen-master of cooking, respecting for the beans’ journey from field to her pot, careful to drain away only the bitterness away when they are rinsed. This is not cooking, this is an homage to creation itself that Sentaro absorbs without realizing it. And we do, too. N.B. Need a place to start to whip up your own batch of happiness? Try www.japanesecooking101.com/dorayaki-recipe/