Based on the novel Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa this 2015 film directed by Naomi Kawase is a slow and gentle story about three people on the margins of society bought together by cooking.
Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) is a middle aged man weighed down by his past. He runs a small bakery selling dorayaki to locals, getting up early to make the pancakes. An elderly lady, Tokue (Kirin Kiki), responds to his advertisement for help and after a while he grudgingly accepts her offer, while noticing her crippled hands. She is overjoyed at the prospect of working but horrified by the offensively large plastic bucket of wholesale bean paste he uses for the filling. Carefully she shows him how to make it himself, listening to the beans and watching, watching. Word soon gets around about the new dorayaki recipe and the shop becomes a destination. But when rumours spread that Tokue’s hands have been disfigured by leprosy, Sentaro has to let her go.
Wakana (Kyara Uchida), is a lonely schoolgirl who comes to the shop everyday and befriends Tokue. She starts to investigate leprosy and persuades Sentaro to go with her to visit Tokue in the sanatorium where she and other patients have been forced to live. Although full of guilt for not being able to protect her from the lack of compassion or prejudice that follows her around, the friendship between them grows and we learn more about the three of them, the schoolgirl, the pensioner and the confectioner all to some degree living solitary lives through social stigma.
Food and cooking and life are their topics of conversation . Tokue’s delight at working in the shop and making dorayaki is infectious, and the photography shows throughout that while it takes patience, freedom and joy can be found in all life’s infinite small pleasures if we just take the time to look. It is sentimental but I didn’t find it saccharine or cloying, I think because the acting was so understated and realistic. Lovely.