An (2015) is a story of three people who appear imprisoned in their own lives.
Director Naomi Kawase symbolises their plight through the marginal ‘character’ Marvy, a caged canary owned by the youngest of the three.
Tokue (Kiki Kirin) is an endearing 76-year-old woman who arrives unannounced in the life of small restaurant owner, Sentaro (Masatoshi Naguse) and one of his best customers, Wakana (Kyara Uchida). The last is a girl about to embark on high school but without the support of her errant mother, who wants her to work to bring money into the house.
Sentaro’s restaurant is a tiny space in Tokyo, where he makes dorayaki, a pancake filled with sweet red-bean jam (the ‘an’ of the title). His heart isn’t in it and he is reluctant to hire Tokue until he samples her home-made an, far superior to the commercial version he has been using.
Sentaro’s life is a drag, pronounced at the film’s beginning by his heavy trudge from sleep to an upstairs platform to have a smoke. Out of focus in the background is cherry blossom, eventually in focus, in dazzling bloom and one senses that this movie may not necessarily be about unhappiness. Is there hope for this sad, close-to-middle-aged man?
Unconcerned about Tokue’s malformed hands, Sentaro gives the older woman more duties. She has not only shown him how to make an incredible red-bean paste but her joy in natural things like the moon and the cherry blossoms has given him a new perspective on his life. Her visual celebration of the beans while making the an is worth a thousand words.
Everything is going beautifully. Tokue has a job; Sentaro’s business is doing well and Wakana enjoys a sense of family from the two when she visits the shop. Indeed, the three make up a disparate three-generation family of grandmother, son and grand-daughter.
It’s all sweet and sunny until the bad guys arrive. The owner of Sentaro’s shop tells him Tokue has leprosy and implies the woman shouldn’t be near food; this woman and her unseen husband have paid a debt for Sentaro and he has to do what they wish; and Wakana runs away from home just as the story takes this turn for the worst.
The imprisonment theme has them all locked up. Tokue has been ‘imprisoned’ for 50 years in a secluded leprosarium; Sentaro is riven by his guilt at having badly hurt a man while breaking up a fight in a pub; and Wakana is just as caged as Marvy in her small flat with her mother out, heaven-knows-where.
Kawase has fashioned a sentimental but endearing story, aided immensely by cinematographer Shigeki Akiyama. Cherry blossom has rarely looked so beautiful and there were even more shots of rustling trees than in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011).
FOOTNOTE: Kiki Kirin once had the stage name Chiho Yuki but sold it at auction on a TV game show because when asked to sell something of hers, she said she had nothing else to sell.