Sweet Bean is set in a small-town dorayaki (どら焼き) (red-bean pancake) shop run by a grumpy middle-aged man (Sentaro, played by the rather handsome Masatoshi Nagase / 永瀬 正敏) who isn’t even that fond of sweets. One day he is approached by an old lady (played by the wonderful Kirin Kiki / 樹木 希林) who asks about the part-time job which is advertised, saying she has always wanted to work in a dorayaki shop. Sentaro tries to politely reject Tokue, but after tasting her own red bean paste he realises he can vastly improve his dorayaki with her help.
Together, Sentaro and Tokue sell dorayaki to an ever-increasing number of customers, until word gets out about the deformities to Tokue’s hands which were caused by leprosy and the customers start staying away. Sentaro is forced to let Tokue go, but together with school girl Wakana (Kyara Uchida / 内田伽羅 – Kirin Kiki’s granddaughter) who is a regular at the shop they visit Tokue in the home she lives in with other leprosy sufferers. Sentaro feels guilty, but Tokue is just pleased she had the chance to work in the shop and share her red bean paste with the customers, despite their prejudices.
When Tokue is making the red bean paste in the dorayaki shop she teaches Sentaro an important lesson about loving what you do and doing what you love. She cares for the beans, allowing them time to cook and be ready, and even though the process takes hours it isn’t a chore for her because she truly enjoys it. In her parting words to Sentaro, Tokue reminds him that a person’s worth lies in their being and not their career, and that we should find the joy in the sights, sounds and smells of the world around us. The film ends with a much happier, more fulfilled looking Sentaro than the one we met at the start.
Sweet Bean is a lovely film. It is a little slow, quite long, and of course a little sad, but utterly worth watching for a beautiful snapshot of Japanese life.