An. あん。Sweet Beans.

An-_Sweet_Red_Bean_Paste-p1

I watched ‘An’ (あん) a while ago and I liked it.
Most people, who saw and even reviewed it, did so as well.
The Guardian dubbed the movie as “sweet but not cloying” and originally awarded it 4 out of 5 stars.

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, however, scored the film at 2 out of 5 stars, complaining that “Despite some touching moments, and earnest performances, I must confess to feeling exasperated by the sentimentality and stereotype being served up”.

The film reviewer Roger Ebert  – though he claimed he liked the movie a lot – still had some critical remarks, like “Sweet Bean makes a blatant leap for the heartstrings that feels too heavy-footed for its delicate construction. Admittedly, some of these scenes are moving, but often the sentiment feels laid on as thick and chunky as Tokue’s bean paste.”

To some degree, he was, is right of course. Because I DID cry at the end. Yet this was not so much because of the tragic manner in which the story was unfolding, but much more because some of the messages that came across, genuinely struck a chord with me:

  • A meaningful life means you touch the hearts and souls of whom you encounter along life’s winding road.
  • We are born into this world to see it and listen to it. Since that’s the case, we don’t have to be someone. We have, each of us has, a meaning to our life.”
REALLY JAPANESE

‘An’ really is a typical Japanese movie with cherry blossoms, a quite pace, piano chords…

Text like

  • “The paste of azuki beans is the soul of the dorayaki.”;
  • “The beans are our guests, since they have come from so far…”
  • “You know when your dish is almost ready because the aroma of the cooking fumes are different.”

You won’t find those in a standard Hollywood product.

SO WHAT IS THE STORY ABOUT?

The male lead actor Sentaro runs a stall from which he sells dorayaki, mainly to a group of schoolgirls. Dorayaki are a sandwich-like treat made of two pancakes held together by a large dollop of an, a sweet bean paste. He’s a man of few words, who never seems to be at ease whenever others are around. He’s also bent on creating perfectly shaped pancakes for his dorayaki. What doesn’t meet his criteria, he rejects and hands out for free.

One of the schoolgirls, Wakana, inquires about the Help Wanted sign in the shop’s window. But she has competition. Tokue, an old woman, appears out of nowhere. She wants to work for Sentaro, who is not in favour of granting her this wish. Her disarming smile does little to win him over.
Yet she offers him a valid criticism: the pancakes are good, but the an really sucks. When she finds out that Sentaro buys the an from the supermarkets, she understands and brings him some red bean paste she has made herself. Sentaro is stunned by its flavor and hires her.

From then onwards, Sentaro follows Tokue’s instructions on how to cook the beans, while he does all the heavy lifting.
Why? Tokue has severely deformed hands.
Watching the cooking process, set just before dawn, requires patience from both the cook and the movie audience, yet it pays off for both. Sentaro’s new, improved dorayaki quickly become a blazing success due to word of mouth. Very soon Tokue also starts serving customers and packaging dorayaki. And then, it all goes wrong.

I REST MY CASE. ALMOST.

I’ll stop here, so that I don’t spoil the pleasure of watching the movie yourself. I’ll not tell you why Sentaro behaves like he does, or what the story behind Tokue’s deformed hands is.
Someone described ‘An’ as beautifully shot and acted, earning its ultimate sense of hope by confronting real heartbreak head-on, and with compassion.
My summary? Craftsmanship, rituals, satisfaction, fulfilment and rapture.
But don’t take my word for it. Just go and see it for yourself.

Links

  1. Based on the novel ‘An'(published February, 2013 by Poplar Publishing Co., Ltd.) by Akikawa Tetsuya (aka Sukegawa Dorian) (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetsuya_Akikawa) (German)
  2. Film director Naomi Kawase (English)
  3. Related Japanese information 1953 Prevention Law, Japan (repealed in 1996!) (English)
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