A sensitive and endearing tale that links three unlikely people – a student, a baker and an elderly woman – this Japanese movie was a selection for Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. The title, An, refers to a sweet red bean paste, which is a favourite in Japan.
Taciturn Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) runs a small bakery that serves dorayakis, delicious pastries filled with this paste. When a gentle old lady – 75-year-old Tokue (Kirin Kiki) – offers to help him in the kitchen, her deformed hands and age sees Sentaro reject her overture, even though she is prepared to work for a third of the wage he is willing to pay. All that changes though once Sentaro tastes her lovingly made “an”. When it comes to producing sweet treats, Tokue proves to have magic in her fingers and in quick time the little business is flourishing. Only trouble is afoot, as Tokue’s past is one of heartbreak. Sentaro, too, hides a dark secret; while a young girl – Wakana (Kyara Uchida) – a regular at Sentaro’s bakery, is having trouble at home.
Writer and director Naomi Kawase calls it a meeting of souls who unite in order to face life’s obstacles. Kawase says that “throughout our lives, there are times when we might find ourselves filled with regret and despair, and feel like giving in. “Despite this – or maybe even because of this – we are nevertheless capable of holding onto our hopes and of continuing to have faith in the future.” Ultimately then, An is about renewed hope and optimism, as opposed to despair and isolation.
Tokue and Sentaro have both come from shadowy places. Tokue has made peace with her past, but not so Sentaro. The story is an adaptation of a book of the same name by Dorian Sukegawa, who was in one of Kawase’s movies (Hanezu) as an actor in 2012. Kawase was drawn to how carefully the novel traced the presence of “what’s invisible” in life. Nature – and cherry blossom trees in particular – play a sizeable role in the film.
The simple things in life can be the most rewarding, whether that be the dawn of a glorious day or a hearty meal. In thinking of the latter, the properties of food and its ability to generate feelings of delirium very much come to the fore in An. This gently paced movie paints an important picture of loneliness and pain and how those elements can be effectively dealt with when and where you might least expect. Each of the three key players is compelling in their own right.
Sentaro is the last to let down his guard, but when he does the change in him is affecting for the audience. An is thoughtful and intelligent adult entertainment that engages the mind. Rated M, it scores a 7 out of 10.
Director: Naomi Kawase
Cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Kirin Kiki, Kyara Uchida
Release Date: 28 April 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television