(photo credit: PR)
An (aka Sweet Bean) starts out as part of a Japanese minigenre of feel-good food movies – Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, billed as “The World’s First Noodle Western,” comes to mind – and gradually turns into something quite different, and very moving.
Directed by Naomi Kawase, who has made both features and documentaries, it focuses on simple details to make the story vivid.
An stars Masatoshi Nagase as Sentaro, the proprietor of a small dorayaki (pancakes filled with sweet red bean paste) shop.
Nagase played the Japanese tourist to Memphis obsessed with American singer-songwriter Carl Perkins, best known for the song “Blue Suede Shoes,” in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 cult classic Mystery Train. There, he was hipper-than-thou, but now, more than 25 years later, his face has a sadness and a wistfulness. He sells this sweet snack for a living but doesn’t even like sugar.
When the giggly schoolgirls at his shop tease him for being so solemn he ignores them, but he has compassion for Wakana (Kyara Uchida), a shy girl whose family wants her to quit high school and go to work, and gives her the “rejects” – all the pancakes that are a bit burned or the wrong shape but are still edible.
He is looking for a part-time helper, and one day, Tokue (Kirin Kiki), shows up asking for the job.
A frail 76-year-old woman, she seems incredibly self effacing, and is not offended when he tells her she is not right for this kind of work. But she persists, and eventually gets him to try her sweet red bean paste, which she says she has been making for 50 years. It’s delicious, and the industrial stuff he has been buying by the gallon can’t compare to it.
As she teaches him the secret of her paste-making process, the movie seems like it is going to be one of those movies where an older person uses food as a vehicle to impart wisdom to a younger person. Her bean paste makes the shop wildly successful, and along the way, some of his tragic backstory is revealed and he begins to find redemption for a crime he could never forgive himself for through his relationship with her.
But then it turns out that Tokue is a leper, or, as we would now say, has Hansen’s disease, and the woman who owns the shop insists that she be fired. Leprosy was one of the most feared diseases in history because it can be so disfiguring, and throughout history lepers were confined to hospitals and colonies. However, a cure for leprosy was developed as early as the Forties, and even simpler treatments came along in the Fifties. Those with leprosy, which was never as contagious a disease as many people believed it to be, went back home after leper colonies were closed all around the world (Hansen House, a former leper colony tucked behind the Jerusalem Theater, is now an arts center) – except in Japan.
Japanese scientists and doctors refused to believe that leprosy could be cured, and lepers were confined to the colonies until 1996. In the movie, Tokue still lives with her old friends in her colony, although she is free to come and go.
Sentaro, who has come to admire Tokue, is faced with a dilemma, particularly given the fact that he still owes the shop owner money for legal fees.
While this story may sound overly pat, it is unfolds gradually and simply. The actors are outstanding, particularly Kirin Kiki, who I thought at first was a nonprofessional actress playing herself, but who has actually had a long and distinguished career.
An is slow-paced, graceful and quiet film, but for those who have the patience it is touching and memorable, a movie that focuses on leprosy but obviously has implications for the treatment of all those who don’t fit in.