Opening Cannes’ Certain Regard this year, though palpably made for a slot in a Culinary Cinema sidebar, director Naomi Kawase’s adaptation of Durian Sukegawa’s novel An aims so low that it makes good on its modest ambitions. These are to underline the injustice of Japan’s former treatment of persons with contagious diseases, and to highlight the warmth of a selfless elderly woman who brightens the days of everyone she comes in contact with. It’s not the stuff of Shakespearean drama, and in fact is barely enough to squeeze a few tears out of audiences into sentimental fare. Overall this delicate drama seems too frail and cloying to waft far beyond its Franco-German-Japanese coproduction borders.
“An” refers to a sweet red bean paste that is used as the filler between two pancakes in the recipe for dorayaki, which — to hear the film tell it — is major street food in Japan. It’s perhaps not the most appetizing combo till you try it, but for those willing to give it a go, the recipe is given in zen-like detail with many close-ups of gently simmering azuki beans. Kawase’s larger, not-so-original point is that food needs to be prepared with love and dedication, just as life must be attentively looked at, listened to, smelled and savored.
These are the lessons brought home by Tokue, a spacy 76-year-old lady who takes on the wise nature-loving sage role given to the fisherman in the director’s previous film, Still the Water. One fine day Tokue, warmly played by veteran actress Kirin Kiki, answers a help-wanted ad on a dorayaki shop. The place is so small, it’s a one-man show run by the sad-eyed manager Sentaro, who is portrayed with quiet dignity by Masatoshi Nagase (co-star of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train.) At first he rejects her for the job because of her age and gnarled hands, but one taste of her an and he changes his mind. Subsequent scenes illustrate how long it takes to make the bean paste and how sales skyrocket now that granny is doing the cooking.
The film is nearly half-way through before a note of drama is introduced. The peaceful little town bursting with cherry blossoms is shaken by rumors that Tokue has been treated for a dread disease. When the schoolgirl Wakana (Kyara Uchida), a regular at Sentaro’s shop, looks up Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in her school library, the cat is out of the bag.
The undercurrent that runs through the film is a message to learn from nature and enjoy the wonder of life moment by moment, no matter what hard knocks you’re dealt. Kawase tries to connect this idea to the visual beauty of the blossoming cherry trees that surround the shop and line the streets, but when Tokue starts waving at tree leaves and talking to beans, it all feels a little much.
Production companies: Comme des Cinémas, Nagoya Broadcasting Network, Twenty Twenty Vision FIlmproduktion
Cast: Kirin Kiki, Masatoshi Nagase, Kyara Uchida, Miyoko Asada, Etsuko Ichihara
Director: Naomi Kawase
Screenwriter: Naomi Kawase, based on a novel by Durian Sukegawa
Producers: Masa Sawada, Koichiro Fukushima, Yoshito Oyama
Director of photography: Shogeki Akiyama
Production designer: Kyoko Heya
Editor: Tina Baz
Music: David Hadjadj
No rating, 113 minutes