Based on the book Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa, Sweet Bean follows the story of a dorayaki baker and his shop. The director and writer Naomi Kawase often speaks about how she likes to explore the realistic and ‘unflattering’ aspects of life, and she most definitely does in Sweet Bean. She is a renowned Japanese director who has premiered many films at Cannes, such as Hanezu (2011) and Still the Water (2014). I initially came across this movie a few weeks ago on the streaming site Mubi where they were premiering it as their film of the day; I was instantly in love. Immediately after watching it I gave my login to my sister and forced her to watch it, and she fell in love with it too.
The film opens with our protagonist, Sentaro. We are introduced to him as he walks to the roof of his building and smokes a cigarette first thing in the morning. After a minute of the natural sounds like wind blowing in the background, the scene changes to long scenic shots of soft piano music. His walk to the bakery, in the early morning light and still dim shots, shows the solemnity of his character. We then meet Tokue, a sweet lady taking her morning walk through their village. In contrast, Tokue is distinguished through the bright sunshine and her cheery admiration of the cherry blossoms.
From the first ten minutes, we are clearly shown the characterisation of Sentaro and Tokue while it lays groundwork for their development as we see their personal lives and how they could impact one another. We also follow Wakana, a schoolgirl who regularly visits the shop and seems to have formed a father-daughter bond with Sentaro. She encourages him to be more receptive to Tokue and is a big reason that he even hires her.
Although the story and message at heart are wholesome, there are many layers which provide a gritty glimpse into these characters’ lives
The plot of Sweet Bean is sweet but not soppy. Although the story and message at heart are wholesome, there are many layers which provide a gritty glimpse into these characters’ lives. This is a character-based story, where we follow their relationship and individual lives. My favourite movies recently have all been character movies. I love when films explore and develop characters to the point where they feel real and lifelike. Sweet Bean does certain tropes and storylines well which I believe is quite hard to do properly; the ‘moody man meets happy woman’ trope isn’t romanticised nor is it portrayed in a way that makes Tokue seem unrealistically merry, she just is a happy old lady who loves dorayaki.
At heart this is a food movie. If you love food movies you will love Sweet Bean. I have a thing for cooking shows and I think I’m almost done watching every food show on Netflix. Being able to watch the whole process of making soybean paste in a documentary style film was brilliant; the shots are gorgeous and sleek while it is clear how vigorous the process actually is. I’ve never had dorayaki beforehand but ever since watching Sweet Bean I’ve been desperate to either try it or make it myself. Food movies are comforting to me because I love being able to explore other cuisines and learn about their processes.
The visuals are obviously clear, but the colours are so warm and gentle
One of my favourite aspects of the film is the cinematography, done by Shigeki Akiyama. I love this style of filmmaking where the shots, lighting and sound are so sleek. The colour palette of Sweet Bean is quite soft, it appears airbrushed and low in contrast. The visuals are obviously clear, but the colours are so warm and gentle.
To me, the colour palette reflects the tone of the movie as it emphasises the softness of the story. Initially when introduced to Sentaro we are faced with soft blues and dim lighting but throughout the movie the colours turn warm and fresh. The piano music that plays in the background of some scenes is the perfect addition when a lot of the movie has a natural background noise; it isn’t too harsh and is used sparingly to really elevate a moment.
Please do watch Sweet Bean. You will be met with a comforting story alongside deep and intricate characters who will make your heart very happy.