The theme of “unlikely friendships” in a film may be over used and sometimes used ineffectively, but for Sweet Bean it’s appropriate, effective and welcome.
Sweet Bean is a delicious red bean paste, the heart of the dorayaki pancakes of Japan and the thing that brings the film’s main characters together. When the troubled, 30-something manager (Sentaro) of a dorayaki/pancake stall is approached by a somewhat disabled and disfigured elderly woman (Tokue) looking for work, he is dismissive, assuming the work would be too taxing for her. She is persistent, but not pushy, sweetly asserting her life long desire to work at such a humble shop, cooking and creating. Even offering to work for half the wages, does little to sway Sentaro. Initially firm in his decision, he relents after she returns with a sampling of her homemade sweet bean paste and with the encouragement of a young local student who frequents the shop. Tasting is believing, and Sentaro offers her a place in his one-man show, with a small but loyal customer base. Her perfect painstakingly made paste, ignites a large word-of-mouth following giving an undeniable boost to the business.
Although fast friends with few words, Sentaro and Tokue do not know each other’s history and secrets. He is a skilled cook with no enthusiasm for cooking, running a business or living life, indebted to the owners; she a happy-go-lucky woman seemingly unaffected by her ailment that dates back to a traumatic childhood. Despite this, she always takes time to revel in small things like cherry blossoms, birds and the sadness of Sentaro. Eventually, word gets out of Tokue’s illness, driving the patrons away and Tokue back to obscurity. The once detached manager ponders his situation of debt and loss, and is determined to find his friend.
Everything about Sweet Bean is understated. It’s poignant, without being the least bit sappy. It’s about how seemingly insignificant relationships can matter the most if you listen and let them in. It’s about how encouragement and knowledge can come from unlikely sources. That’s a theme in life and movies that never gets old.