Sweet Bean. (PG.)
Directed by Naomi Kawase.
Starring Kirin Kiki, Masatoshi Nagase, Kyara Uchida, Miki Mizuno, Miu Takeuchi, Saki Takahashi. In Japanese with subtitles. 113 mins
An excessive interest in the preparation of food is said to be a sign of a civilisation in decline: Nigella, Jamie, Gordon and Merryberry as the sous chefs of the apocalypse. The Japanese are equally obsessed with cooking, but unlike here where the proponent of sugar tax employ a profligate, bukkake approach to seasoning, the Japanese approach is about restraint and specialisation. Hara hachi bu says you eat till you are 80% full; chefs and restaurants concentrate on a single dish; sushi apprentices spend years mastering boiling the rice.
Gruff, cynical Sentaro (Nagase) only has to make Dorayaki, small pancakes filled with sweet bean paste, but he isn't very good at it. One day an elderly lady, Takuo (Kiki) comes along looking for work. She teaches him the secret of perfect sweet bean paste, and thus how to embrace life.
This is the quintessential gentle Japanese drama; almost to the point of cliché but not so that it is problem. It starts with cherry blossom trees, and is about accepting life and the link between the generations (there is a third major character – schoolgirl Wakana, played by Kirin Kiki's actual grand daughter, Kyara Uchida.) The recipe is fundamentally sentimental, but made without the syrup.
The three leads are all immaculate but Masatoshi Nagase is the stand out. Three decades ago he was the epitome of deadpan dullard cool as the Carl Perkins obsessed hipster in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, and you fancy that his face hasn't moved much in the subsequent years. So when emotion attempts to seep through that craggy visage it is enormously touching. When he finally breaks down in tears it is heartbreaking, like a beautiful old disused building being demolished.
Half way through a narrative curve ball is thrown into the cosy certainty of the drama with a character revelation that is out of left field, but even this doesn't really disturb the equilibrium. This is the kind of quality Japanese drama where nothing happens, mercifully. These days we are hooked on dramatics, believe that a life without a conveyor belts of slanging matches and OMGs is one half lived. Sweet Bean shows us that pottering along in a contented rut can be a great satisfaction.