Drama, Films, Japan, Recommended posts, Reviews

An, aka Sweet Bean

Subscribe to its sentimentality, and An will offer a moving and even existential experience…

An takes its name from the sweet Azuki red bean paste that fills dorayaki – a Japanese sweet that consists of two small pancake-like patties wrapped around a bean filling. They’re delicious, but some find them too sweet. And this is an accurate representation of the reception of Naomi Kawase’s film at Cannes last year, which opened its Un Certain Regard section to a divided audience of film industry bods and critics. Some of whom panned An with all the dessert puns you could think of – giving it a severe ‘dressing’ down for being saccharine, banal and labouring its point.

But if you’re caught in a contemplative mood when watching Kawase’s adaptation of Japanese author Durian Sukegawa’s book, then you’ll find that the gentle (granted at some times lethargic) and multi-layered narrative provides plenty opportunity to reflect on life – for better or for worse. Kawase’s intent to “reveal and underline the joy we are able to feel when…[we have a] commitment and connection to the world” is exemplified in optimistic interstices that punctuate the overarching melancholia. An is truly bittersweet.

The film follows Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), a downbeat dorayaki shop manager whose apathy is reflected in the mediocre dorayaki he produces for his small customer base. One of his young regulars, Wakana (Kyara Uchida) is often at the shop with her friends gossiping about school. Like Sentaro, Wakana has certain despondency that hints to her loneliness. Marked by a cherry blossom tree in bloom, the two first meet Tokue (Kirin Kiki) in spring. She’s a cheerful seventy-six year-old who visits the dorayaki shop in response to Sentaro’s advert for an assistant. He’s sceptical about the eccentric old lady’s ability to endure the long hours and her willingness to accept half of the advertised salary. Tokue returns days later to ask again about the job and on being rejected a second time, reveals that she’s been making an for fifty years, leaving her homemade produce in Sentaro’s hands. He tries it later that afternoon, and it is (of course) delicious. The business begins to flourish as Tokue and Sentaro work together, but Tokue is afflicted with an illness that once exposed, drives her into isolation once again.

Providing several points of identification, Kawase’s multi-generational character study highlights the importance of knowledge values and systems. The preservation of knowledge is an important underlying theme to An, and this is typified in a scene where Tokue is first showing Sentaro how to make ‘proper’ bean paste. Before her arrival Sentaro had always bulk ordered the an – much to Tokue’s disapproval. When she’s teaching him how to soak the beans, she holds her face close to the water and Sentaro asks, “What can you see? What are you looking at with your face so close?” It’s an ostensibly ordinary question, but it highlights Sentaro’s inability to decipher the codified nature of the world he inhabits. He doesn’t yet have the experience to see what Tokue can. She imagines the life of the beans, the winds that blew over them, the sun that shone on them and their journey thus far. This exemplifies her dictum: “I think whatever we become, we have, each one of us, meaning in our lives.”

Shigeki Akiyama’s cinematography augments this location of meaning in seemingly insignificant things using a shallow depth of field and considered framing, and we’re sutured into the creative process of producing the an. The film is beautifully shot, and this is fundamental in driving the narrative as Kawase uses (like many Japanese directors) the changing of seasons to keep the film moving. With each season there is a tonal shift, which does present issues regarding the film’s predictability but Akiyama is so adept at capturing the feel of natural world that it’s easy to succumb just to the aesthetics.

There are moments when the film’s universal themes really resonate – Tokue writes in a letter to Sentaro, “We try to live our lives beyond reproach, but sometimes we are crushed by the ignorance of the world.” This rather gloomy outlook comes at a point when she feels particularly isolated but ultimately, what we take away from Tokue’s wisdom and indeed the film is that despite feeling regret and despair, we are capable of holding onto our hopes and of continuing to have faith in the future.

The fact that An has been met with a mixed response is understandable, but also anomalous for Kawase, who has previously competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes with four of her films and has also won the Golden Camera and the Jury Prize. Although An may not be winning over juries and critics alike, it’ll no doubt win over those who perhaps look beyond its sentimentality.

An was screened as the opening film of the Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. It also screened at the Contemporary World Cinema section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. An will be released in selected UK cinemas and available on VOD from 5 August 2016, ahead of its Dual Format (Blu-ray and DVD) release on 22 August 2016 from Masters of Cinema (Eureka Entertainment).

About the author

Joshua SmithJoshua Smith Joshua Smith
Josh graduated from King’s College London with an MA in Film Studies and Philosophy, taking modules in Japanese Cinema at SOAS. He’s worked at various film festivals and cinemas, and hopes to continue sharing his passion for Asian film through writing and exhibition. You can follow him on Twitter. More »
Read all posts by Joshua Smith

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