There is little salt to balance out the sugar, yet the Sweet Bean remains delightful. A conventional tale about a few misfits teaching each other about life conforms to a certain narrative mold, but is elevated by Naomi Kawase's delicate direction and sublime images. Middle-aged Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) mans a pantry-sized shop in Japan selling dorayakis, a snack of redbean paste caught between two pancakes. The shop's few patrons are a trio of schoolgirls, chatty and harmless, and another more pensive named Wakana (Kyara Uchida, magnetic). Sentaro sports the uneasy glare of a man whose seen too much, speaks very little, and has no friends. This changes gradually and drastically when he reluctantly hires the 76-year-old Tokue (Kirin Kiki), but only after sampling her home made bean paste; Sentaro has long grown used to committing the sin of purchasing a pre-made version in bulk.
Tokue teaches hew new boss - a title she proudly relishes on him - to get up before the sun to simmer the beans and coax out their flavor by talking to them. An eccentric old lady she is. With a hunch and dawdle, glasses and bonnet, she is a cute grandma-type, full of vague wisdom and rough past to match Sentaro's in a bit of amateur character development. In the beginning she's someone to be laughed at, and even annoyed with, but be careful. This senior citizen who waves excitedly at sakura blossoms and stares off into the distance might draw you in without notice.
With little surprise, the dorayaki 2.0 is a big hit resulting in long lines and smiles for all involved until the shop’s real owner reveals the mystery behind Tokue's isolation. It’s an alarming contrivance in an otherwise temperate script. The issue is dealt with in an off-handed manner, just as the b-plot of Wakana’s besotted mother is purposely left in the shadows. Likewise, Sentaro's woeful backstory of ill-fated events is conveniently and vaguely fleshed out. Kawase's film is instead one of moody sentiments and images - fog passing over the moon, buds and blossoms on branches, a bright and chirping yellow canary in an otherwise drab setting - filling in broad cloaks in lieu of story. Before you know it, the summer air has cooled, the flowers have fallen, and the film enters weepy territory. It was a slippery slope to the predictable ending, yet that doesn't quite stop the tears. Sweet Bean is sentimental fare for sure, but sometimes familiar tastes prove quite a comfort.