Sweets – many people love them including, admittedly, the author! In addition to their culinary delights, they offer windows into different cultures and societies, in some instances connecting us with the world of several centuries ago. The recent Japanese film Sweet Bean shows how sweets can also be used as a way of bringing together people who would not otherwise have a chance to know each other and also as a site of fighting discrimination.
Sweet Bean tells the story of Sentaro, a man who is haunted by past events in his life, and who runs a small dorayaki shop in Tokyo. Every day, he makes dorayaki – a delicious sweet made of 2 pancakes with a sweet bean paste in the middle – and sells it to a small group of established customers. He does this without passion and without even liking dorayaki in order to pay back a debt he owes. Wakana is one of Sentaro’s regular customers and it is clear that he has become a quasi-father figure to her. We know little of her other than that she lives with her mother, who seems to be uninterested in Wakana, and her bird. Each day, Sentaro lets her stay at the shop, have dorayaki, and sends the rejects home with her so that she can have food. She contemplates not going to high school due to financial issues but Sentaro is convinced that she needs to keep on with her schooling.
One day, an older woman, Tokue, stops into the shop to ask about the posting outside for a part-time worker. Sentaro is very polite to her but refuses, clearly concerned that a woman in her 70s would be hurt while working in the restaurant kitchen, especially as she has hands that he believes are deformed from old age. Tokue returns shortly afterward and leaves him some of her homemade bean paste to try. She leaves before Sentaro can taste it – when he does he is amazed at how delicious it is. Without contact information for Tokue, Sentaro can only wait for her to return and she does. Eventually, they agree that she can work for him and one of her first acts is to scold him for using pre-made bean paste in the dorayaki. She insists that they make the paste together the next morning and shows him the many steps involved in making something so traditional and delicious. In essence, she teaches him to respect each step of the process even if his current customers were content with the state of the old paste. And his old customers – and many new customers – agree!
Success brings attention to the shop and the shop owner drops in one day to tell Sentaro that he must fire Tokue because she heard that Tokue is a leper who lives in one of the last remaining leper institutions in Tokyo. Tokue is not a danger to anyone and cannot infect anyone, yet the stigmas attached to those with leprosy are still strong and the shop owner evinces that when she describes how the streets used to be sprayed down after lepers used them. She reinforces this by using sanitizer on her own hands while in the shop. Sentaro does not want to fire Tokue and tells the owner that he needs more time since Tokue is the reason for the upturn in business. After this, he anguishes over what to do as he sees Tokue thriving and happy working at the shop. Against advice, he encourages her to work in the storefront with him seeking to defy stereotypes and biases.
An unfortunate slip by Wakana to her mother causes people to turn away from the shop while Tokue is there. Tokue seems to understand this by the lack of customers and, when Sentaro tells her to take an afternoon off, she instinctively realizes what is happening. She writes a letter to Sentaro apologizing for not telling him the truth earlier and thanking him for the chance to work and to be a part of society. Wakana insists that she and Sentaro go to visit Tokue at her home in the leper colony. As they make their way, Wakana tries to prepare Sentaro (and, one suspects, herself) for what they might encounter but they are surprised when they find elderly residents who seem to be happy with each other despite some disfigurement and outward manifestations of disease.
When they find Tokue, she tells them the story of how she was brought to the colony as a child after the war by her brother because the family suspected that she had leprosy. Her brother told her that he would likely have to leave her there and her mother made her a special blouse to look her best when she was there – her brother did indeed leave her and the blouse was taken from her, along with everything else, when it was determined that she was ill. She and the others in the colony lived in the spatial confines allotted to them from that point onward. They were able to marry, as Tokue did, however they were not allowed to have children and if a woman became pregnant she was forced to have an abortion, as was also the case with Tokue. In the middle of this story of sadness, Tokue becomes happy when speaking of the joy that working for Sentaro gave her because she was included as society and able to interact with people in society without stigma. This brings Sentaro to tears because he feels at fault for taking away the joy she had but Tokue assures him that this is not the case.
Sentaro hires Wakana in Tokue’s place and all seems to be well until the shop’s owner announces plans that will change the shop dramatically. Around this point, Sentaro and Wakana go to visit Tokue again and learn that she just died. They are devastated at the news but find a letter waiting for them telling them not to be sad because of the happinesss they gave her. They also find that she has left her tools for making bean paste to Sentaro, who is seen using them at the end of the film to make dorayaki from a stand in a park rather than remaining at the shop. In this final way, Tokue allows Sentaro freedom just as he allowed her freedom.
Sweet Bean is a poignant story of personal relationships that is also a testament to the ability of stigmas to continue years after the basis for their claims have been proven untrue. It demonstrates how lingering discriminations can come to the forefront based on whispers and shows how devastating they can be. At the same time, the film demonstrates how important it is for those with disabilities and those who have been targets of discrimination to be treated as members of society. Sweet Bean also shows the value that these individuals have to society and how much society hurts itself by discriminating against those with disabilities and those who have been stigmatized.