Friday, April 15, 2016

191. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s “An” (Sweet Bean/Sweet Red Bean Paste) (2015): Zen and the art of making pancakes

Globally, Naomi Kawase is not as well known as are Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Yasijiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, Nagisa Oshima, Hiroshi Teshigahara and Shohei Imamura. Ms Kawase is an odd one to be included among those stalwarts. First, she is the only woman among all those men. Second, she is the only one with a non-Japanese first name, while her filmmaking is quintessentially Japanese, harking back to nature and traditions of the Japanese people. And finally her filmmaking is distinct from the rest—each feature film with strong female characters, each feature film that exudes respect for elderly folks and their accumulated wisdom, each feature film stressing on equilibrium of relationships between human beings and nature. Finally, her reflective and philosophical style of filmmaking unintentionally is very close to that of the US director Terrence Malick. She could well be considered Japan’s answer to Malick.

Lonely Sentaro makes a living making dorayaki sandwiches with "an" and
selling them his customers to pay off his debts

Like Malick and the Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman, the majority of her eight feature films are built on her own original screenplays, mostly without the help of a co-scriptwriter.  Only two Kawase films are adapted from novels, Sweet Bean/ Sweet Red Bean Paste and Hanezu (2011).  Only one of her eight feature films—Nanayo (2008) utilizes the services of a co-scriptwriter. This fact is not trivia, if one compares it to the acclaimed body of Kurosawa’s output which is almost entirely built on ideas of novelists, short-story writers, and top-notch gifted scriptwriters. Kurosawa’s success was considerably due to the following 10 talented scriptwriters he worked with over the years:  Hideo Oguni (12 films) Ryuzo Kikushima (9 films), Shinobu Hashimoto (8 films), Eijiro Hisaita (4 films), Masato Ide (3 films), Ishira Honda (3 films),  Keinosuke Uekusa (2  films), Keiji Matsuzaki,  Senkichi Taniguchi, and Yuri Nagibin (1 film each). In contrast, Kawase’s films are by and large products of her own ideas, spoken words, and stories, captured on film.

Naomi Kawase made two major shifts from her usual pattern of filmmaking for Sweet Bean/ Sweet Red Bean Paste. First, having made only eight feature films, this is Kawase’s second attempt to adapt a novel for a movie.  And for the first time, this feature film turns out to be a commercial success as well! Second, this is her first feature film that has the entire action captured on film in the city of Tokyo, far away from the Nara prefecture in Japan which has been her favourite filming location. (One of her earlier films, Nanayo, did have some scenes filmed in Thailand.)

Wakana, Tokue and Sentaro bond as a virtual family,
listening to birds and enjoying small pleasures of nature that sorround them 

Sweet Bean/ Sweet Red Bean Paste has three unrelated individuals of three different age groups in Tokyo bonding as a family. What brings the three together is “An” the Japanese name for the sweet red bean paste, an essential ingredient for dorayaki, a popular hot pancake sandwich. One individual cooks the bean paste, one sells the dorayaki, and the third is a regular customer at the dorayaki stall. The film is a delightful tale of how the trio come together and how their lives change. The closest works of cinema to this Japanese film is the Oscar winning 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast and the 2000 UK/US film Chocolat The key element that the entire Kawase's body of films have that was missing in both Babette’s Feast and Chocolat was what human beings need to observe and learn from the harmony in nature.  There is a deep message in the Japanese film beyond the story line: that a person’s worth is not to be measured by one’s career but in one’s being and that inner joy can be experienced with the help of our sensory faculties in the natural world that surrounds us. That is very close to Buddhist philosophy.

It would be too simplistic to describe the film as a mere tale of three individuals bonding over a confectionary item and finding a virtual family in unexpected circumstances. The film is drenched in philosophy and the experience of viewing the film is close to what a reader would feel after finishing the Robert M. Pirsig novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a tale of people learning from each other.  

In an interaction with the media at the Cannes film festival, Kawase pointed out “No one can live alone.... I get the impression that in today's societies people create their own barriers. In a broader context, these barriers could make us rethink the idea of getting rid of 'the other'. Sometimes a person looks very angry from afar. But if we get close enough, we see that he is crying. That person may only seek attention and affection of others.” That encapsulates Kawase’s body of cinematic work, not just Sweet Red Bean Paste.

Tokue makes the dorayakis as Sentaro, her boss, is late for work

The virtual family in the film is made up of three “misfits” in today’s society. The lead male character is Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), possibly in his late twenties, divorced, who after injuring someone in a drunken brawl, was imprisoned for it, and had to pay a huge sum of money to the grievously injured man. We learn his dour countenance is a reflection of the hard work he has to put in to pay back the debt. The greedy owners of the dorayaki stall where he works are an added headache. Sentaro is not a bad individual, but life is not easy for a freed jailbird with a debt and no family. The lead female character is Tokue (Kirin Kiki) a cured leprosy patient in her Seventies with disfigured hands, who by a quaint Japanese law is not supposed to exit her sanatorium. Again this character is a lovely individual who cannot interact with the rest of the world for no fault of her own and her only “family” is reduced to her compatriots at the sanatorium.  The third character of importance is Wakana (Kyara Uchida, the real life granddaughter of actress Kirin Kiki) a sensitive and curious school girl who loves to eat doroyakis and dreams of going abroad. Her only family is a mother who does not give her much attention. Durian Sukegawa’s novel and Kawase’s film bring together the trio of misfits without a family as they meld into a new virtual family.

Sweet Red Bean Paste as any Kawase film presents characters that are aware of the natural world surrounding them. Even in Tokyo, a vertical concrete city, Kawase focuses on the cherry trees in bloom between buildings  and a yellow canary chirping away on one of the branches.  This was perhaps more pronounced in her earlier works The Mourning Forest, Hanezu and Still the Water, which were less accessible to comprehend for a casual filmgoer. In Sweet Red Bean Paste, the silences, the sounds of leaves in the wind and even footsteps, are to be savoured as they hold meaning for the tale, unlike most other films. Tokue’s last message to her young “family” is not to regret the isolation in society that unfortunate events can dictate in your life. She advises the young “family” members the necessity of living life appreciating the wonders of life. In the film, Tokue says, “Everything in the world has a story to tell.” She talks to the beans that she cooks, she listens to them cook, and has tales about beans cooking to narrate.  She is grateful to Sentaro to have given her an opportunity to cook ‘an’ after all these years and watch the public savour the fruits of her labour. Sentaro in turn is grateful to Tokue for making his business boom. Wakana is grateful to Sentaro who gives away the imperfect dorayakis to her gratis. These simple actions have a larger effect and meaning in the film.

Sentaro sells his dorayaki under a cherry tree amidst nature--he has learnt
from the advice of Tokue

Two details need to be stated. Naomi Kawase was left by her own parents and brought up by her grandparents, which is probably why recurring stress on family and respect for elders underscore her films. Actress Kirin Kiki, who plays the cured leprosy patient Tokue, had battled cancer herself and got cured.

While Sweet Red Bean Paste is a major work of Naomi Kawase, a delightful work exuding positive philosophy of life, and relatively easy to comprehend, The Mourning Forest and Still the Water remain her more complex and satisfying works. Nevertheless, Naomi Kawase is one of the most important filmmakers alive and making films today.

P.S.  Sweet Red Bean Paste is on the author’s top 10 films of 2015 list. The films of Naomi Kawase The Mourning Forest, Hanezu and Still the Water mentioned in the above review—have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. Sweet Red Bean Paste has won awards at Sao Paulo, Cork, and Valladolid film festivals and the Best Actress award for Kirin Kiki at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Ms Kawase is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers

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