If you’ve ever wondered what became of the young Japanese actor who played the insouciant, too-cool-for-Elvis (he preferred Carl Perkins) rock-’n’-roll fan in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 Mystery Train — well, Masatoshi Nagase, now nearly 50, doesn’t smirk even once in Sweet Bean, a new film directed by Naomi Kawase.
Nagase plays Sentaro, the laconic, haunted-looking proprietor of a stall from which he sells the Japanese confection dorayaki. Early in the film, as cherry blossom trees flower outside his place, we see him preparing batter, frying it up and putting dollops of red bean paste between two little pancakes. He’s devoted to his work, but something’s missing.
Along comes Tokue, an old woman, seemingly out of nowhere. Played by Kirin Kiki, she has a disarming smile, but also a haunted air — it seems to follow two steps behind her. She wants to work for Sentaro, who has no idea why and isn’t terribly interested. Until, that is, he tastes some red bean paste she’s made.
Some of the most entertaining food-themed films ever made have arrived from Japan over the past 30 years. Sweet Bean crosses this subgenre with the old-person-imparts-wisdom-to-younger-acolyte variety, but it is not typical of either kind of movie. As the two characters learn more about each other, sadness piles up at a pace that’s deliberate and relentless. When Tokue instructs Sentaro to cook the beans as if remembering the wind that touched them as it wended past their stalks, her own past as a pariah (she was confined for much of her life to a latter-day leper colony, we have learned) lends tragedy to her wisdom.
The movie, beautifully shot and acted, earns its ultimate sense of hope by confronting real heartbreak head-on, and with compassion.
Cast: Kirin Kiki, Masatoshi Nagase, Kyara Uchida, Miyoko Asada.
Writer-director: Naomi Kawase.
A Kino Lorber release. Running time: 113 minutes. Adult themes. In Japanese with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.