|'The third main character, Wakana (Kyara Uchida) keeps a pet canary and as soon as it appears on screen you can tell it is both about to serve as a canary and a 'canary'.'|
Whilst it is hard to doubt the overall quality of Masters Of Cinema's catalogue of classic releases, the contemporary films that the label picks up can make for a more eclectic bag. Spotting a 'master' and perhaps, more accurately, a master work is obviously harder without the passing of time. For every Queen Of Earth, which feels as though it could have staying power, there's a Simon Killer, which feels already rather forgotten.
An (retitled Sweet Bean for its UK release: there is no direct translation of the original title, which is a kind of paste made out of beans) fits very nicely into that imperfect mixture. The lilting story of dorayaki (a type of pancake) shop owner Sentarô (Masatoshi Nagase), who befriends his elderly want-to-be colleague Tokue (Kirin Kiki), could be around and still being considered in several years time. Equally, it could end up as a largely forgotten and minor work of Japanese filmmaker Naomi Kawase. Such is the Masters Of Cinema contemporary gamble, and dedication to releasing the works of noted cinematic artists.
An teeters between finding poignancy and looking like something Terrence Malick might produce during the current relative malaise in which he finds himself. The characters are obsessed with the nature around them, which then becomes inevitably and increasingly metaphorically related to what's happening on screen. The third main character, Wakana (Kyara Uchida) keeps a pet canary and as soon as it appears on screen you can tell it is both about to serve as a canary and a 'canary'. Possible outcomes; feathery death, freedom or some sort of combination of the two. Our feathered friend does not disappoint. By the final third, Kawase has gone full on voiceover, layered over pastel, sunlit-dappled imagery of people doing not very much in fields and forests. It's not entirely unwelcome. It is becoming a little bit too often the mise-en-scene of choice in auteur offerings.
Kawase though does find some important heart within An that means you can go with its canary metaphors, sun-dappled forests and half-hearted dedication to diegetic sound (which is abandoned at the final third). Tokue is at the centre of it; a sweet lady with a simple purpose who guides Sentarô towards what he wants to do and where he wants to be in life. The near-tragedy of Wakana's upbringing is pulled into the sphere of these two characters and a believable, imperfect surrogate family unit develops.
Kawase's work might be located within a sort of Japanese social realism and in this regard again there is much to admire within An. The director rejects many temptations to ram her message about societal outcasts and power structures home (though a voiceover reveal of Sentarô's past is a miss-step). Instead, characters develop believably and positively, the script driving them to follow passions, rather than wallow in problems. It's not always successful and the lack of any conflict until around forty-five minutes in can let it seem a little stale, but it can be sweet and affecting and visuals are gorgeous as often as they are trite.
Sweet Bean (An) is released in UK cinemas on Friday 5th August and UK blu-ray and DVD on Monday 22nd August.